As I finish up this blog, Hurricane Michael has just wreaked havoc on the Florida Panhandle, then moved across a swath of the south as an encore. It turned out to be the strongest storm to hit this part of the U.S. in more than a decade. By the time this blog is published, another storm will probably hit and it will be the strongest storm to hit the continental U.S. in a month.

It used to be that hurricane season ended officially in November. There was even a tongue in cheek End of Hurricane Season in Key West every year, as communities took a collective sigh of relief that at least one major disaster was over, at least until the following June.

But these respites from disasters seem to be becoming rarer and rarer. Once the lore of fables and faiths, The Great Flood may not be such an impossible idea these days. According to the International Sustainable Resilience Center (ISRC), there have been 87 major disasters (those with more than $1 billion in negative impact) recorded worldwide in 2017 alone and an average of 71,000 people a year having lost their lives since 2000. Perhaps the folks in Williamstown, Kentucky who built the life-sized Ark will have the last laugh as their tourism boondoggle takes on a new role as a lifeboat.

After all, Noah was not only a boat builder but also the world’s first economic developer. After 40 days and 40 nights of rain that wiped out all life, Noah set down to a new economic landscape where he began the process of creating a healthy community. (Does that job description sound familiar?) But first he had to go forth and multiply. No easy task but the former boat builder turned economic developer was up for the task.

As every economic developer knows, we have very little power to prevent a manmade or natural disaster. But we can take steps to minimize their impact, preparing a community and its businesses to recover quickly. Disasters may be part of our world these days, but their catastrophic impact can be managed to a great extent.

You’ve heard me write about how disaster preparation and recovery plans are an important part of any community’s business retention program before. But it’s important for economic developers to act before a disaster and not after.

After a disaster, a lot of people introduce rudimentary ideas and steps necessary to weather the next storm better. Schools practice mandatory drills, plans are made to bury power lines, officials practice search and rescue techniques and emergency centers stock more food and water for the next disaster.

These are all well and good. But it’s also important to have business recovery strategies in place to help companies prepare for and weather a disaster so people can get back to work as soon as possible. The goal is to not only restore the local economy, but to restore some normalcy to the lives and livelihoods of workers.

The media moves on after a few days after a disaster. As does attention and resources. What’s left behind is millions if not billions in dollars in property damage, a business community left in shambles, and workers unable to make a living.

This is where an economic developer can be something of a super hero in a community. While you can’t use your powers to blow a storm away from town or keep the earth from shaking, you can help businesses plan for the inevitable.

Helping those businesses must include the difficult decision to choose one of the 3 R’s. Do you repair, rebuild or relocate? Climate change is making businesses more vulnerable every year. The spots that flood today will flood again. At one point, you have to say maybe Mother Nature doesn’t want you there. Maybe she’s trying to tell you something.

Economic developers can give them the tools they need to ensure that their operations can close safely, and more important, open again, even if “reopening” means that operations aren’t even close to normal or even in the same location.

Some of the steps are very simple, such as teaching businesses to store critical business documents in the cloud or to make backup copies of everything regularly and store backup drives off-site. Or being able to know how to contact your workers after a crisis has passed so they know when and where to return to work, even if cell service is down. Or knowing how to restart your equipment in sequence when power is available, or how to stay in contact with suppliers so they known when products and supplies can be delivered again. And certainly, to have a plan set in place to have a supply of water or know how to purify it. After all, water is the one hurricane supply you cant live without.

The economic developer’s role is to make a difference for local businesses by pushing the economy toward a faster recovery. The IEDC and the ISRC are leaders in providing information and support with their global expertise in disaster resilience, sustainability, and public private partnerships.

In response to the increase in disasters, the IEDC has developed a program of disaster preparedness and post-disaster economic recovery resources directed at economic development organizations, chambers of commerce, local business and trade organizations, and other economic recovery stakeholders.

Funded by a grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA), the IEDC has developed a one-stop shop of disaster preparedness and post-disaster economic recovery resources and practical information on RestoreYourEconomy.org.

I would like to highlight some of their recommendations and add a few others that I think are strategies a local economic developer should champion.

Preparation

  • Negotiate advance contracts with utility lifelines
  • Train and certify engineers to conduct rapid assessments of buildings
  • Evaluate hospital preparedness and supply chains.
  • Establish a government body with funding authority to coordinate preparedness.
  • Identify school buildings at risk
  • Retrofit dangerous brick buildings.
  • Build infrastructure that can withstand prescribed levels of stress and demand

Recovery

  • Establish a Business recovery center
  • Provide services for case management
  • Survey businesses immediately to assess damage and recovery efforts
  • Conduct business recovery workshops
  • Provide short- and long-term financial services
  • Ensure targeted and appropriate incentives for the business community
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate

Noah was lucky, He didn’t have to worry about power outages, failed wastewater collection or lack of water.

Unfortunately, we do. The entire world probably won’t be wiped away at once, but as we all know, our entire world can be turned on its end in a single day.

But as Noah discovered, there is a rainbow at the end of all this doom and gloom. For in the end, we all have the ability to control the impact of a disaster. We can be ready for its eventuality and minimize its impact by doing the necessary planning before it strikes, so that in its aftermath, we can focus on recovery rather than wonder what to do next as the world crumbles around us.

  • Maury

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