What Big-Box Retailers Can Teach Government About Disaster Recovery

Companies have become masters of disaster as they’ve endured every type of emergency and learned lessons along the way.

by / November 28, 2011
After being destroyed by a tornado in April, the Lowe’s in Sanford, N.C., was rebuilt and reopened on Sept. 8. Lowe's

[Photo: After being destroyed by a tornado in April, the Lowe’s in Sanford, N.C., was rebuilt and reopened on Sept. 8. Photo courtesy of Lowe's]

With hundreds of locations nationally and globally, big-box companies like Lowe’s and Target have become masters of disaster recovery and business continuity. With their geographic vastness, these companies must be ready for natural and man-made disasters and have an action plan for everything from rebuilding a store to supporting affected employees.

These companies excel at disaster recovery because they’ve endured it before. They’ve learned lessons along the way (think Hurricane Katrina) and adapted plans. While there are many distinctions between public and private sectors, they’re more alike than different when it comes to business continuity and disaster recovery.

Just as governments are vital to recovery, businesses are possibly more critical to rebuilding a disaster-stricken community. Thus it should be no surprise that some leading examples of disaster recovery are in the private sector — and state and local governments can look to big-box chains for best practices.

Dan Stoneking, director of FEMA’s Private Sector Division, said there are aspects of disaster recovery that both sectors can benefit from, including having an emergency operations center (EOC) — which oversees all aspects of emergency response and public-private partnerships — to inform decision-making and provide dedicated assets. “We all benefit from planning for the worst and hoping for the best,” Stoneking said.

Behind the Curtain

Many in the public and private sectors have created EOCs that function as command centers during emergencies. But Target took this a step further with its Corporate Command Center (C3). Located in Minneapolis, the C3 has operated 24/7 since opening about five years ago, according to Mike Rackley, Target’s director of global security services.

“It helps us have strong surveillance of the environment and what is happening that could have any potential disruption to business,” Rackley said. “Whether it is a weather event, man-made event — whatever it might be — and gives us the ability to have firsthand knowledge and quick awareness of the occurrence.”

In this tight fiscal environment, governments may not have the resources to staff an EOC 24/7, but real-time information can still be obtained. The National Weather Service, for instance, offers e-mail and text alerts using GovDelivery Inc., a company that provides communication services for government. And the Weather Channel has a free desktop tool that provides real-time severe weather alerts and local information.

Photo: Lowe's Command Center / Courtesy of Lowe's

Lowe’s relies on its Command Center in Mooresville, N.C., for to-the-minute situational awareness before and during a disaster — most recently for Hurricane Irene, which affected more than 100 stores. J.D. Densmore, manager of the Command Center, said Lowe’s activated the center before Irene’s landfall and brought in representatives covering a wide variety of functions like HR, public relations and community relations; as well as a repair, building and construction specialist to advise on moving products to support the stores impacted by the hurricane.

Many governments and companies have their EOCs set up similarly and house key people in different functions. But it’s also important that government and industry share how their command centers work. In November 2010, FEMA began allowing private-sector representatives to observe its operations center, with an executive from Target spending 90 days there.

“States and localities can do the same, and I’d highly encourage it,” Stoneking said. “It’s amazing what you learn when you invite somebody into your backyard — it becomes personal. Only after your guests have the visibility of how you do business can they offer the most useful feedback on how to build a more robust environment.”

Another important aspect is giving private-sector workers a role in a government operations center. Businesses are vital to a community’s recovery post-disaster — they provide supplies and products that residents and governments need to restore normalcy. For example, during emergencies, the nonprofit California Resiliency Alliance serves as a liaison between government and its member business organizations. The alliance staffs representatives in the state’s EOC in order to keep businesses updated and relay information requests.

Elaine Pittman Former Managing Editor

Elaine Pittman worked for Government Technology from 2008 to 2017.

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