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Controlling What You Can When Managing a Natural Disaster Event

Posted By USFN, Wednesday, July 17, 2019
Updated: Friday, March 13, 2020

original story by Jeremy B. Wilkins, Esq., Devin Chidester, Esq., and Jason Branham, Esq.
Brock & Scott, PLLC
USFN Member (AL, CT, FL, GA, MA, ME, MD, MI, NC, NH, OH, RI, SC, TN, VA, VT)

updated text by Jason Branham, Esq. and Jeremy B. Wilkins, Esq.
Brock & Scott, PLLC
USFN Member (AL, CT, FL, GA, MA, ME, MD, MI, NC, NH, OH, RI, SC, TN, VA, VT)


Image courtesy of NASA


Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the summer 2019 edition of the USFN Report. While it originally focused on natural disasters, the spread of COVID-19 has given new importance to the overall preparation tips. The authors have included tips to help manage recent developments.

All content not expressly marked as an update remains the work of the original author(s) in the role with which they wrote the original article.

As the world watches the spread of the strain of Coronavirus identified as COVID-19, those responsible for workplaces and workforces revisit contingency plans and begin to activate them.  Many of the principles and considerations shared in an earlier publication of the article below regarding management of a natural disaster event are relevant to present circumstances.  In addition to the steps to take during natural disasters, organizations should consider the following during legitimately heightened periods of concern for the spread of impactful contagious illness and the ripple effects thereof.

Decision making must occur based upon accurate information.  Falsities, rumors, and speculation are the enemy and often serve to evoke panic and overreaction.  Seek reliable sources who are qualified to offer medical, scientific, and other practical information and guidance.  Set the appropriate tone for your organization.  As is often expressed, worrying about things which are out of our control is wasted energy.  It is a distraction to the responsibilities we bear in the provision of the goods and services we provide.

Avoiding contraction of illness is the common goal of all: we care about our employees’ well-being; and a healthy workforce gives an organization its best chance to succeed.  What reasonable measures are within our control in the workplace?  What reasonable steps should we encourage our employees to take outside of the workplace and off-the-job which can increase illness prevention?  Employee involvement will likely be important in securing a comprehensive awareness of considerations such as: physical hand-offs of documents and other tangible items; the common touching of surfaces such as equipment and doors; and the advisable frequency and manner of disinfecting.

How we respond in both word and deed to developing events will have a substantial impact internally and externally.  What are the triggering events that will lead to specific actions of escalating response?  What resources and options for changes to business operation are available throughout stages of escalation?  How will we respond if partners/vendors critical to our business operation are limited by the event?  - 3/13/20

To parse a phrase from Game of Thrones: Hurricane season is coming (or at this point, is here).  For those of us that live and work in the southeastern U.S. this time of year can and usually does have a huge impact on our lives and businesses.  Effects from the hurricanes in late 2018 are still impacting some areas near the Atlantic Coast.  Point being, a hurricane or any natural disaster will decimate communities for prolonged periods of time.  Specifically, in the default servicing industry, the impacts are wide-ranging, and the effects felt from all parties: creditors to borrowers, law firms to government agencies.  This is further compounded by the multiple unknowns that occur prior to and after the fact of the disaster (i.e., timing of the natural disaster event, extent of damage inflicted, and total geographic impact).  Regardless of the unpredictability, post-disaster success requires preparation, planning, and a proactive mindset with governing those criteria that are within an organization’s domain and control.  Guidance during a natural disaster situation is often waning but instilling proper proactive and pragmatic concepts in an institutionalized and organizational manner through a well-defined business continuity plan will mitigate the overall impact of the proverbial storm. 

Compassion is the most important underlying concept to any organization’s business preparedness through a natural disaster.  People and how they are treated is the fundamental root that ensures businesses continue to operate after the event.  As the old saying goes, “Things are replaceable, people are not.”  Any business continuity plan must be drafted in light of compassion towards employees and the likelihood of individual needs that flow from the ramifications of a natural disaster.  People are the most important and most valuable asset of any organization.  Awareness of any community evacuation plans is essential to ensuring employees that elect to evacuate on their own personal volition are afforded enough time while balancing work needs.  Disastrous events threaten the safety and stability of a person’s life, loved ones, home, community, and livelihood for unknown lengths of time.  People are understandably distracted, and decision making becomes difficult.  Imparting an emergency plan that is straightforward and guides, informs, and comforts employees during desperate times is the foundation to a successful emergency plan.  In fact, the organization should look externally to involve itself in the community as part of any clean up and recovery efforts and look internally to help those employees adversely impacted.  There is a collective power in altruism that will inure positively in many ways.

Follow a Written Plan
A viable business continuity plan (“plan”) must be in writing, clear yet instructive, and adequately communicated throughout an entire organization.  The plan will set forth duties, responsibilities, and directives for all staff and management to follow before, during, and after the natural disaster.  In the event you have multiple office locations, the plan should be specific to each office to the extent necessary, but also broadly developed for the entire organization.  The plan should serve as the roadmap for your organization’s response and actions both pre- and post- natural disaster event.  The plan should assess possibilities for a broad array of possible natural disasters including potential levels of severity, responses, and security threats.  After implementation, a viable plan should be subject to continual review to ensure successes are maximized and necessary remedial measures are taken.  The plan is the starting point for managing preparedness and by its very nature is a proactive document that will bind the foregoing components by developing controls within the organization for any possibly natural disaster event.  A plan must be in place within each organization-- even if the likelihood of a natural disaster is slim to none.  It is a fundamental, controllable, and proactive measure to ensure employee safety and business stability post disaster. 

Protect Assets
Your organization is only as viable as the assets that define it, including employees, tangible goods, and infrastructure.  Protecting your assets is culturally rooted in caring for the well-being of your people.  An organization’s duty of protection for its assets is predicated on the idea of not placing the assets in a risky situation.    Having a plan that identifies individual leaders/facilitators, establishing communication through readily available methods of checking in or points of contact (i.e., phone tree, text/email address, online portal, etc.), and having known methods of contact for leaders and management to establish employee safety both before, during, and after the natural disaster event.  For instance, Brock & Scott’s North Carolina foreclosure operations were greatly impacted by Hurricane Florence.  Thankfully, the firm’s Business Continuity Plan and the Emergency Response Plan for the Wilmington office included necessary contact points and team members tasked with identifying employee safety as well as office security.  Regular check-ins helped give peace of mind during a hurricane that devastated Wilmington and the surrounding area.  Similarly, Brock & Scott’s Ft. Lauderdale location uses a plan on the same fundamentals around employee safety, clearly identified check-in methods, evacuation routes, and other asset protecting methods.  Communication with staff is not always easy during a natural disaster, especially with potential power outages, but advance knowledge of everyone’s location and an established system of contact will allow an organization to succeed in the midst of adversity.  Employee safety is paramount and should be encouraged at all costs, then focus needs to be on protecting tangible goods and other non-human assets (i.e., original documents, computers, office security, etc.).   

It is essential to safeguard tangible assets belonging to your organization and any others placed in your care.  Depending upon your location, your office structure should be prepared properly in the event of a prolonged power outage or obstructed access (i.e., downed trees, impassable roads, etc.) for an extended period.  Including a reporting system, having regularly scheduled calls with emergency leadership in your organization, and identifying who is responsible for accessing offices/building locations and how ensures assets are safeguarded.  A good Plan will encourage remedial measures to ensure doors are boarded or locked, tangible items are secured, and technology (computers/servers) are managed to prevent security breach and destruction.  It is prudent to take basic remedial measures such as unplugging all electronics and elevating any computers or other physical items from potentially preventable destruction, such as flooding.

With respect to original documents, preventative measures such as cataloguing ones on hand, returning ones to proper holders, or removing to a secured location in another office will ensure unnecessary destruction and help identify any documents that may be lost.  If it is best to relocate them temporarily, ensure appropriate measures for chain of custody are taken.  These measures are necessarily proactive in nature and keeping your client informed and documented will further instill confidence in preparations.  Importantly, these are measures that should exist within your organization’s Plan and the implementation is within your control.  Every decision or criteria for such that can be made or set prior to the disaster, should be made and set and incorporated in the Plan. 

Communication is the lifeline of a successful plan.  As always, success at any level requires a communication structure both internally and externally as it pertains to the organization.  As part of a successful plan, you must communicate clearly and directly.  The messaging should not be left to interpretation. 

Employees should all know expectations and duties both pre-disaster and post-disaster as appropriate to their location and job responsibilities.  The means of communication should be consistent and within the confines of resources available under the circumstances.  As previously mentioned, communicating with staff throughout is of the utmost importance.  It goes beyond protecting your employee as an asset; it solidifies the strength of the organization. 

Further, communication outside of the organization to clients, court officials, and vendors should also be done clearly and directly.  It is incumbent to ensure external communications project a sense of organizational strength and address in real time (e.g. office operational hours, court closures and delays).  It is advantageous to have resources physically located outside of the natural disaster impact area that capable of communicating with those inside the impact area to convey the message with accuracy.  Ask yourself: “who needs to know what…and when?”  Relevance and timeliness are key components of effective communication.  Often a state of emergency is declared, and this may have long term impacts to pending litigation, available court resources/schedules, or cause legal remedies for distressed individuals (i.e., FEMA claims, insurance claims, delayed mortgage payments, etc.).  Specific facilities may be damaged, closed, or inaccessible.  External communications are going to be a snapshot of the situation on the ground and they will have a long-term impact if not done so with clarity and purpose in a timely manner.  Even in an event of minimal impact, communication be continuously envisioned, planned for, and part of the written plan. 

Outside the Box Thinking
Admittedly, when a natural disaster hits, you must be prepared to move outside of your comfort zone.  A proactive approach to business operations is necessary and should be part of any governing Plan.  For example, in organizations with multiple office locations, a preventative approach may be to reposition staff from a danger zone to one of safety prior to any disaster hitting.  We are fortunate to have a few days’ notice before hurricanes, winter storms, or the like hit a specific jurisdiction.  Operating from another location may have increased cost, but the business maintains function and is not stopped completely.  Another workaround is to utilize remote access for qualified employees post-disaster.  This takes some pressure off employees who are balancing work needs with the personal stresses of the disaster. 

A plan should have in place the ability to cross train staff in other locations.  This ensures minimal functionality and prevents all operations from coming to a screeching halt.  This is where established and proactive uniformity in processes and methodology within an organization’s Plan can allow for outside of the box success and planning.  Furthermore, as a natural disaster makes its impact, there could be extended power outages and travel routes that could additionally impact delivery services, specifically US Mail and overnight mail delivery options.  This could impact processes at all levels and the downline timelines of matters could be greatly crippled.  Having a backup location for mailings to be sent or processed from will prevent any downturn or timeline delay from occurring.  With Hurricane Florence, Brock & Scott used a backup office location not on the coast.  This allowed for mail collection and processing to have minimal interruptions while travel to and from Wilmington was extremely limited.  Another possible remedial step; include the use of private air travel or even boat couriers to transport documents in and around the impacted locations.

Organizations “weather” natural disasters by having policies in place and a plan which is composed well in advance and proactively implemented which incorporates: a true sense of care for its people, a clear plan of action for likely contingencies, measures to protect physical assets including facilities and property, and a means for effectively communicating relevant information to both internal and external recipients who need it to maximize performance and safety.  After taking these steps, creative and resourceful outside-the-box thinking can take the quality of an organization’s response to an even higher level.


Copyright © 2019 USFN. All rights reserved.


Summer USFN Report


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