Lessons from Hurricane Irma: How to Keep Your Company Running No Matter What
I’m a pro at disasters. I’ve been in earthquakes, blizzards, and hurricanes. I’ve changed a flat tire with tornadoes in the vicinity. I was living in New York on 9/11 and saw the second plane hit the south tower. I was also there for the massive blackout in 2003. (Honestly, for your own safety, you might not want to hang out with me.)
Luckily, I’ve made it through each of these incidents unscathed and with little property damage, which unfortunately is much more than a lot of people can say. However, after each event, I learned some important lessons. That’s why when Hurricane Irma set its sights on our hometown as a Category 5, I was ready.
We at Rocket Matter first became aware of Irma on Tuesday, September 5th. That was the day we released Atlas Gold, our second biggest product release in our ten-year history. Not only did we update our core application with massive new features, including an entire secure messaging framework, we launched brand-new mobile applications on both iOS and Android. I mention this not to showcase our work, but to point out that we had been planning this release since 2016 and were very excited to celebrate it as a team. However, instead of popping champagne, we had to shift gears and prepare for this dangerous storm.
With clients all over the world, we knew that we couldn’t afford for our customer service team to miss a beat. So we asked for volunteers from work to evacuate for business continuity purposes and reserved them a rental home outside of the cone of danger. I rented a home for my family as well. By Tuesday night, we knew we were going to have a core operational team as well as our management team somewhere safe and online.
On Wednesday, we decided to let all Rocket Matter staffers work remote. Gas is hard to come by in situations like these, so I didn’t want people burning their survival fuel getting to the office. People also needed time to prep their houses with shutters, remove any outside furniture and debris, and help out relatives. We instituted rotations so some employees could prep for the storm while others manned the sales and support lines. Everyone was very anxious about Irma and what kind of destruction she might bring, but they still got their work done. I was amazed how everyone pulled together.
Anticipating disruptions to our standard methods of communication, which is primarily in person and via Slack, we prepared alternate means of getting in touch with people. We made sure we had everyone’s contact information up-to-date and distributed it in a printable spreadsheet. I live and work in the cloud, and remote access is a must in this situation. However, having printed information is key as well: I’ve been in too many situations to know that critical information should be printed and stored in a lock box or Ziploc bag.
We finalized communication protocols on Wednesday, specifying who was supposed to check in, with whom, and when. Most critically, employees were to check in with their managers immediately after the storm.
That evening my family and I began our evacuation. Speak to anyone who evacuated Irma, which was by some estimates the largest evacuation in U.S. history, and they will express gratitude for the traffic app Waze—it got us through the worst of the traffic jams. Still, what should have been an 11-hour drive to Northern Georgia took 18 hours. (That’s a lot of quality together time for two adults, two kids, and two dogs.) For the people who left on Thursday, the drive took 25 hours.
Even when we were safely out of Florida, we watched helplessly as the storm did not change its course nor let up in intensity. Every person in the warning cone obsessively checked the updates, issued every three hours, from the National Hurricane Center. It was becoming more certain with each unchanging update that South Florida was going to suffer greatly.
On Thursday, I called every one of my employees. For the bosses out there facing a similar situation, I would recommend taking the time to do this. It felt good to check in with everyone, and they greatly appreciated the call. The ones in the storm’s path put on a brave face, but you could hear the concern in their voices. By Friday many wished they, too, had evacuated, but by then it was prohibitively risky to get on the road.
Then, we got a break. The Saturday advisories projected the track of the storm to shift to the west coast of Florida. The relief felt by knowing we’d avoid a direct hit was greatly tempered by the sickening feeling for our friends and family on that side of the state. Also, some of our staff had actually evacuated to Tampa, so they had to head out into the traffic jams again.
On Sunday night and early Monday, the storm made landfall. Shortly after it passed, I gradually started hearing from my employees. Reports trickled in up the chain of command, either directly or passed along. Some people could only eek out a broken call, as many people had poor (if any) cell reception. However, we were very lucky. Everyone was safe and uninjured.
Meanwhile on Monday, while Florida was still getting pummeled, we opened for business and were able to serve all of our clients. Because of Slack, Salesforce, and our VOIP system, to the outside world it appeared we were operating normally. Not only did we have our dispatched remote team in place, but some employees evacuated on their own nickel to places as diverse as Los Angeles, Paris, Wisconsin, and North Carolina.
The aftermath of the storm was trying. Irma was so large that while she might have hit the west coast of Florida, the east coast was certainly affected as well. Some of our relatives fared poorly, losing cars and income streams due to the power outages. Massive trees were down everywhere, and they brought down powerlines and crashed through roofs.
Our building was without power for six business days following the storm. Teams clustered in different houses that had power and in a temporary office set up by my landlord. The people with power and internet were able to work from home. It was a frustrating period where we were entirely at the mercy of the utility company to fix the phases coming into our building. However, while we missed out on the camaraderie and collaboration that comes with working together in person, every team was able to get their work done.
But finally, on the second Tuesday after the storm, we were all back at Rocket Matter’s HQ. Our staff, a very tight knit group, was reunited after almost two weeks of separation between storm prep and recovery. That Friday we closed early and celebrated our survival and, finally, our Atlas Gold release.
I’m proud of how our team prepared for the storm. We were able to keep serving our clients the entire time, even when at one point we thought a Cat 5 hurricane was headed directly for us. And while we did everything we could at the time to protect ourselves and our company, we certainly learned even more safety precautions we could have taken. Hopefully, we’ll never have to put those in action. However, if we do, we’ll be ready.