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

The symbiotic relationship between government and industry requires an open exchange of information. “We as the private sector rely on the government to ensure that roads are open, water is flowing and the power is on,” Rackley said. “If those conditions are met, then we can reopen for business and ensure that commerce is back open and running.”

Working Together Is Key

The private sector also provides best practices for supply chain management — whether delivering health supplies like face masks or setting up food distribution stations — government can learn from companies how to do so efficiently.

Lowe’s supply chain doesn’t change much between normal and emergency operations. “The way that our supply chain is structured allows us to be nimble when we’re responding to an emergency,” Densmore said. The company’s distribution centers can push out more products to accommodate emergencies. On an average day, Densmore said each store receives two truckloads of products, but the week after Hurricane Irene, more than 1,000 truckloads were distributed on the East Coast. “We’re doing that through the existing network,” he said. “There’s no change in how we do it; it’s just ramping that volume up to make sure we can take care of customer needs.”

What can governments learn from this? Pre-position supplies in locations that are predicted to be impacted by a natural disaster, and for no-notice events such as terrorist attacks, keep emergency supplies stocked in different locations. For example, if government buildings are spread across a city (or state), divide supplies among the buildings based on how many residents live near them. This is similar to Target’s strategy. Rackley said for hurricanes, the company pre-positions emergency supplies in its distribution centers so they can be quickly moved to the needed locations.

There are many aspects to preparedness that government and industry do separately, but collaborating is important. Establishing public-private partnerships in advance can be key, especially at the state level. Stoneking said the best government programs follow “PADRES”: have a Publicly Accessible representative; a Dedicated full-time employee; provide a Resource like an office or website; the representative must be Engaged; and funding must be allocated to Sustain the program.

The private sector echoes this sentiment. Densmore encourages local governments to establish a private-sector liaison, and he said Florida has done a good job of this at the county level. Each county EOC has an industry liaison who works with the business community on preparedness and execution during an emergency.

Rackley said memorandums of understanding can be helpful at the state level, adding that it’s not an agreement about selling merchandise, but about sharing the responsibility to recover. This lets stores become operational quickly, providing a place for people to get supplies and getting employees back to work.

Although the public and private sectors differ, when it comes to supporting communities and recovering from a disaster, they have the same goal — return a community to normal as quickly as possible to support residents and the local economy.

Sweet Recovery

Since 1955, Waffle House has served truck drivers and residents at more than 1,500 restaurants that provide 24/7 service. The company also has become known in the emergency management community as a role model for disaster recovery and business continuity. FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate has openly talked about his “Waffle House test” — if one of the company’s restaurants is closed after a disaster, the situation is still bad. Here are five ways state and local governments can recover Waffle House-style:

1. Operate on a limited menu. Bring back public services in their order of importance to supporting a community post-disaster.

2. Stay up-to-date with email alerts about severe weather.

3. Provide employees with key fobs that contain the phone numbers of local managers and important contacts.

4. Outfit a recreational vehicle with satellite equipment so backup communications can move to a safe location.

5. Temporarily staff with workers from outside the affected area so local employees can focus on personal recovery.

Elaine Pittman Former Managing Editor

Elaine Pittman worked for Government Technology from 2008 to 2017.

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