Blog: Lessons on Emergency Planning from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma

It’s hard to watch the devastation from the recent hurricanes without—of course—feeling compassion for all the people affected by them in Texas, Florida, and the Caribbean. The loss of lives and destruction of property is heartrending, and rebuilding will take months, if not longer. As a long-time emergency planner and one-time director of emergency planning at the University of Saint Louis, I look at the government's and private industry's emergency efforts and think of the plans I’ve helped put in place or consulted on. How would they have fared during these massive, rapidly changing events?  And what lessons can we draw from what went well and what didn’t?

I have learned a few lessons from the days immediately after the disasters have struck and recovery is in its early stages. I’m sure there will be more lessons to be learned when response plans are analyzed and after-action reports are written. It will be important for all of us to review those reports and update our own personal and business emergency plans by drawing on the insights gleaned from these disasters. 

The first thing that was emphasized for me, once again, is the importance of not only having an emergency or disaster plan but also of updating it regularly and testing it periodically. The days before disaster strikes are obviously not the time to pull the plan from the shelf and dust it off.  While it sounds so obvious that this is not the right thing to do, emergency plans are all too often written up and left to gather dust in some busy person’s office. All too often, emergency planning is an add-on duty. With the crush of everyday activities—especially in aviation, where short-staffed and overworked seems to be the modus operandi of many businesses large and small—planning is difficult, and planning for vague eventualities, even catastrophic ones, is even more difficult. 

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But from what I’ve heard from talking informally with aviation businesses affected by Harvey and Irma, those with plans in place that were regularly reviewed, updated, and tested seem to have fared better in managing the crisis during the storms, and they seem to be on a clearer path to recovery. Of course, time will tell.

Aircraft operators with an Argus Platinum rating are required to have a well-developed Safety Management System (SMS) and a tested Emergency Response Plan to obtain and maintain that rating. Part 121 operators have to comply with the FAA’s recent SMS regulations, which require “an emergency response plan that provides for the safe transition from normal to emergency operations.” The emergency response plan is required to include, at minimum:

  • delegation of emergency authority throughout the certificate holder's organization;
  • assignment of employee responsibilities during the emergency;
  • coordination of the certificate holder's emergency response plans with those of other organizations it must interface with during the provision of its services.

These minimum requirements—while applicable only to air carriers operating under Part 121—are a good starting point for other operators in preparing emergency response plans. The last bullet point is critical: knowing the response plans of emergency responders in your area and how you fit into them is crucial to successfully managing before, during, and after a disaster. Learning these plans and meeting the people executing them for the first time during a crisis is not recommended.

Disaster Planning Beyond the Regs

The other point that was again brought home to me is the importance of the person who's put in charge. In addition to the normal organizational skills that you would want from a person in charge of planning for disasters, Harvey and Irma show the importance of having people in those jobs who can pivot quickly and smoothly when emergency situations change. With Irma, for example, storm preparations were well under way on the expectation that the hurricane would hit Florida’s east coast. Only a couple of days before landfall, the storm’s eye shifted and the impact was falling primarily on the west coast. Many businesses there were left scrambling to ramp up. Of course, people who can handle a quickly changing, dynamic situation will be the ones you want to be in charge to execute the plan when disaster happens.

One of the other lessons of these last two disasters is how much our reliance on cellphones has affected our ability to communicate during emergencies. When the cell towers were knocked out of service, many emergency responders were left with no means of communication. I read of at least one community where managers were forced to relay messages across town in person because power and cell service were out. This raises the importance of satellite phones and walkie talkies for those involved in the disaster response and recovery efforts. Some old-fashioned technology should be considered as well; land lines in the Florida Keys continued to function even when cell service and cable phones failed.

Finally, it's important to keep up with new technology that could help your business prepare for and cope during the disaster and assist in the aftermath. One new technology that got its first full disaster demonstration in Harvey—and was later used in Irma—is drones. 

Federal Aviation Administration administrator Michael Huerta commented recently that “you only have to look at the recent flooding in Texas after Hurricane Harvey to see what a transformative role drones are playing. After the floodwaters had inundated homes, businesses, roadways, and industries, agencies sought FAA authorization to fly drones in airspace covered by Temporary Flight Restrictions. We recognized that we needed to move fast, faster than we have ever moved before. So we basically made the decision that anyone with a legitimate reason to fly an unmanned aircraft would be able to do so. In most cases, we were able to approve individual operations within minutes of receiving a request. By the end of last week, we had issued more than 70 authorizations covering activities by local, state, and federal agencies, and that number will continue to climb. A railroad company used drones to survey damage to a rail line that cuts through Houston. Oil and energy companies flew drones to spot damage to their flooded infrastructure. Unmanned aircraft helped a fire department and county emergency management officials check for damage to roads, bridges, underpasses, and water-treatment plants that could require immediate repair. Meanwhile, cell-tower companies flew them to assess damage to their towers and associated ground equipment, and insurance companies began assessing damage to neighborhoods. I could go on and on.”

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