Natural disasters—hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, tornadoes, wildfires, volcanic explosions—come in varying degrees of awfulness. As we’ve seen with hurricanes affecting Texas, North Carolina, and Florida, and the wildfires sweeping through California, they can wipe out entire communities and affect surrounding areas for years.
The most important order of business before, during, and after a natural disaster is, of course, your safety and well-being and that of your loved ones. Following that, personal property takes precedence.
But having lived through both Hurricane Andrew and Hurricane Irma, I know that worrying about work during a natural disaster can increase your stress at a time when you’d really rather be focusing on those other priorities. So from those who’ve been there, here are some tips to help you through the worst of times.
Know Your Company’s Emergency Response Procedures
Some natural disasters, like hurricanes, offer enough advance notice to make plans. Others come up much more suddenly, giving you little or no time to prepare.
Guirong “Grace” Yan, the director of the Wind Hazard Mitigation Laboratory at Missouri University of Science & Technology, advises taking steps to become familiar with your company’s emergency response policies and procedures before anything actually happens.
No matter where you’re located, you should be informed about what to do in case of a crisis.
That includes knowing your company’s point person for crisis response. Make sure that colleague also has all your current contact information including, if pertinent, that of the person with whom you anticipate staying if you’re evacuated.
Knowing particular emergency procedures is especially important if you live or work in an area that’s prone to certain types of disasters. But no matter where you’re located, you should be informed about what to do in case of a crisis.
Keep in Touch However You Can
Simply knowing who to call or text isn’t enough. Wind, floods, or fires can take out cell towers and electricity, making normal communication difficult or impossible.
Peter Yang, co-founder of the resume writing services company ResumeGo, saw his office in Houston destroyed during Hurricane Harvey. He recommends that everybody invest, if you can, in backup generators, extended batteries, and wireless cards, and keep managers updated on your status however possible, including through social media.
Indeed, don’t discount the value of Twitter, Instagram, and the like. Margit Bisztray, who owns the Key West Insider Guide, says that during Hurricane Irma, “social media was how everyone stayed in touch. Facebook for the people who had access to it, and Facebook by proxy for people in touch with people down here who had satellite phones or land lines.” That way, residents of the area, many of whom worked in the service industry, knew if there was even a functioning restaurant or hotel to which they could return.
Social media was how everyone stayed in touch. Facebook for the people who had access to it, and Facebook by proxy for people in touch with people down here who had satellite phones or land lines.
Sometimes using social media can actually make it easier for you to contact folks from across the country (or the globe!) than for those in the area to do the same. If any co-workers are outside the crisis zone, they may be able to help coordinate communications.
Lisa Mattson, Director of Marketing and Communications for Jordan Vineyard & Winery, was on vacation in Europe when the notorious Tubbs fire began to consume Sonoma County in California. Separated by thousands of miles and several time zones as the fire circled her home, she found relief in texting other employees and crafting outward-facing messages for the website about the state of the winery.
Put Safety First
For those sudden events that hit while you are actually at work, don’t stick around to lend a hand. Yan explains that, for example, “damage from tornadoes can lead to unsafe building conditions and, in some cases, fires, so it is ideal to evacuate the building when the all clear is given.” The same goes for any aftermath. Disaster recovery is usually best left to the professionals (although in some regions, like the Panhandle in Florida, that assistance may take a little while to come).
If you feel that you are out of harm’s way, being agreeable helps everybody.
On the other hand, a supervisor might request help with some tasks that aren’t quite within your job scope, such as covering computers with plastic to protect them from water damage. If you feel that you are out of harm’s way, being agreeable helps everybody. However, if you’ve offered your labor and it’s been accepted, don’t expect to be paid for your time or services beyond your regular salary unless you’ve negotiated that in advance with your boss, Yan says.
If you’ve evacuated from the office space and been given the go ahead to come back by emergency personnel, check in with your manager to help you make informed decisions about what parts of the office are truly functional or what work is due when.
Ask for Assistance
If the workplace is largely unaffected, but employees are hard hit—as was the case with Jordan Vineyard & Winery, where several people lost everything—then work can become a haven. Normalcy and routine are an antidote to insurance matters, bank papers, this bill, that phone call.
“It gives you something else to think about,” acknowledges Mattson, who more than a year later is still not back in her home, which had to undergo smoke remediation and reconstruction. But support is key.
When you make contact with your supervisor post-disaster, give a timeline for your return. And don’t be afraid to ask for what you need, from time off to an advance on a paycheck. Good employers often have rainy-day funds, or at least enough money to cover an extra payroll load. In times of disaster, funds are sometimes repurposed expressly for the means of helping employees and their families. At the winery, for example, John Jordan handed out $500 to every employee.
Companies might bring in emotional therapy animals or schedule team-building activities. Take advantage of those even if you think they’re corny—the comfort and camaraderie really can help.
Companies might bring in emotional therapy animals or schedule team-building activities. Take advantage of those even if you think they’re corny—the comfort and camaraderie really can help. You should also check your insurance plans and other benefits for mental health offerings and use them, whether they’re for therapy to handle feelings of displacement and loss or gym memberships to reduce stress levels. If you don’t know what your options are, make an appointment with a manager or someone in HR and find out.
At the same time, be willing to assume others’ duties until they, too, can return to work at full speed. Colleagues may have it better or much, much worse. What Yan calls the “disaster recovery process,” which can refer to the initial aftermath or to the long-term effects of much greater losses, is like grief. It’s different for everybody, highly personal, and shouldn’t be up for judgment.
Decide to Stay or Start Over
In worst-case scenarios, businesses will have to completely start over, and you’ll be out of a job—even if only temporarily. If your personal life or property has been affected as well, this may be a good time to relocate rather than rebuild. Sometimes the memories make it too hard to stay. Mattson is now counseling victims of the Camp Fire on deciding whether to stay and fight with insurance companies or take what money is available to begin anew somewhere else.
If you’re emotionally and financially able to remain, it may result in real-life work benefits. Participating in local charitable efforts can not only help the region recover, but also assist you in achieving some closure. And when offices and businesses re-open, employers remember those who acted on that intrinsic need for solidarity, as Bisztray witnessed while working with an organization called Nourishing the Lower Keys to feed those who were rebuilding.
Over and over, [those who] were the most generous, selfless, and accommodating with their time and resources were rewarded.
“Most restaurants were running on skeleton staff—usually a chef and then the owner doing most everything else, or maybe one server available. Everyone was very patient, waiting for staff to return and get a grip on their home situation before they could return to work,” she recalls. “Over and over, [those who] were the most generous, selfless, and accommodating with their time and resources were rewarded.”
Sometimes there’s no escaping a natural disaster when it’s coming your way, and employers are (or should be) understanding should the worst occur. But by preparing and acting professionally to the best of your ability, you can, at the very least, reduce your stress levels and safeguard your reputation during and after an event.