Recent events around the world have really hit home with me. While the news has turned its attention to the after-effects of Harvey in Houston, my mind is on Aunt Helen and her fabulous fried chicken.
That may seem a bit self-serving but hear me out. I was born and raised in the Houston/Galveston area. (It took years to erase my accent) My 87-year-old Aunt Helen still lives in Houston in the house she got married in 59 years ago. Some of my fondest memories of my Texas years were Sunday afternoons at my aunt’s house. When suppertime came, the entire family gathered in her gigantic den and waited for her world famous finger-licking southern fried chicken to appear. I was so excited to smell that extra crispy odor with her dozen herbs and spices that I wanted to bottle it as cologne. (I could not figure out how to get the dog to stop licking me). The Colonel had nothing over Aunt Helen’s chicken.
But not all the memories of Texas were pleasant. I vividly remember in 1961 when hurricane Carla came through the area. My father drove to Galveston in 173 mile an hour winds and 11-foot tide surges to rescue my grandmother. Seeing trees uprooted and thrown in the air like a tight spiral football was mind numbing for an 11-year-old kid.
But that was nothing compared to the destruction of Hurricane Harvey. All these memories came flooding back when I saw the devastation on the news of Aunt Helens neighborhood with Hurricane Harvey. Her house of 59 years was seriously damaged and all her possessions ended up on the front lawn, awaiting disposal.
So how does this have anything to do with economic development? Simple. A natural or manmade disaster – a hurricane, earthquake, mudslide, tornado, wildfire, you name it. – can wreak havoc on even the most robust economy. What used to be called a “1000 year disaster” has practically become the norm. In fact, there were three “one in a thousand year” disasters in 2016 and nine events since 2010. We are still counting at least that many in 2017.
When disaster strikes in a community, the community has to be prepared to rely on itself. Yes, state and federal resources will eventually make their way into town, but in the hours, days and even weeks following a disaster, you will be on your own.
And the question from an economic developer’s perspective is, “Are you ready?”
There’s an old axiom that you don’t have to know how to fight a fire but you do have to know where the fire extinguishers are located. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all response to a disaster. Each one is unique and each one requires an equally unique response.
But as an economic developer, you can help your community respond as a family, just as Houston did. In the aftermath of Harvey, neighbors and even complete strangers came together to care for one another, whether it was mounting search and rescue with personal watercraft or taking someone in who needed shelter. No one cared about your politics or your income. That is truly community as family.
The response wasn’t perfect, of course. But in a historic moment when things could have gone either way, residents, businesses, and first responders joined together as a community, as family.
Every economic development program probably has a business retention program where you send out surveys or make the occasional visit. But how many of those visits or surveys include a discussion about disaster planning? Disaster planning should be a part of every business retention program.
But it does not stop with answering surveys. Too many economic developers think that reporting number of business visits or surveys sent is the metric to report. But in fact, it’s not the metric that counts. It’s what you do with the data you collect. This means working with city planners or city emergency officials, local business owners and state and federal relief agencies and organizations to understand where the fire extinguishers are in your community. The response could be as simple as holding some preparedness workshops for your area businesses. Those are the metrics that will mean the most in terms of legislative budgets that result in stories of saving lives and businesses.
As an economic developer, your role in a crisis is to help businesses get back in business as soon as possible. That’s a daunting call to duty. But a lot of the groundwork can actually be done before there’s a disaster to contend with. It’s all about the fire extinguishers. Simple things like teaching businesses to back up their critical data to the cloud or at least off-site or out of state. Making sure there are ways to communicate with employees so they know when to return to work or with customers to let them know you’re open for business again. Or putting measures into place to re-establish critical supply lines, ensure that key systems have redundancies, or creating and practicing a post-disaster plan. You can’t predict what or where nature will raise its ugly force. But helping prepare for a disaster will go a long way to retaining a business no matter what the future forecast.
This is particularly important for businesses in communities where tourism is the economic lifeblood. You may make it through the disaster relatively unscathed as a community, but visitors may end up believing everything Jim Cantore said on The Weather Channel.
(For an excellent free handbook for economic developers, check out When Disaster Strikes: A Crisis Planner for Small Business written by my friend and colleague at the Department of Commerce.)
The true test of a community’s character is in how its people respond in times of crisis. Houston proved that even a diverse major city can be a close-knit family and rise to the occasion when disaster strikes. Communities can be resilient by focusing on what is working rather than complaining about what’s not. These Houston communities are showing that when things are at their worst, communities, can be at their best.
As economic developers, it can be tempting to think of crisis planning being a luxury or someone else’s job. But as we’ve learned clearly in the last few weeks and months, it is our job and we need to start right now, before the news coverage fades and we return to our daily routines of recruitment and incentives. Focus on disaster preparation so your businesses won’t think of business relocation.
Fortunately, family members rescued Aunt Helen and she is safe and moving to a new location. Aunt Helens 59 years old house will no longer be hosting family reunions or holidays where fried chicken will be served. The smell in her house of extra crispy chicken has been replaced by a musty moldy odor like a high school gymnasium with teenaged boys gym socks found in the lockers during a hot summer Texas month. Aunt Helen’s possessions may be gone. But the memories of those family reunions and her fried chicken recipe will live on forever.
For additional resources regarding disaster planning click here.
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