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How Would Your Agency Fare During a Hurricane Harvey?

“You can’t say, ‘We’re down, we’re flooded, we’re not available,’" says Richard Blades, chairman of Big "I" agency Wortham. "You have to be operating as close to business as usual as you can.”
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When Hurricane Harvey struck Houston, the building where Big “I” Best Practices agency Wortham is headquartered “took on water for the first time in its history,” says Richard Blades, chairman.

Floodwaters overtook the basement and about four feet of the first floor—a big problem for a building that houses all its power equipment in the basement. But because Wortham stores data and telecommunications offsite, “we were down for just a couple of hours,” Blades says.

Staff already had the ability to work remotely with full access to email, phones and systems. But as an additional layer of support, Wortham also rented two mobile recovery units from RentsysRecovery and parked them in the building’s parking lot once the waters receded. Each unit accommodated 36 employees—a welcome respite for staff members who were unable to work from home due to flooding, power loss or network issues resulting from the storm.

The damage to Wortham’s headquarters was significant enough that staff will not be able to return until early next year, Blades says—but the agency’s IT department “did a fantastic job” coordinating temporary office space nearby, allowing it to release the mobile recovery units and provide workspaces for 180 employees.

“When you’re headquartered in Houston, you always have to be prepared for catastrophe,” Blades says. “You need to take care of your people, and you need to be able to continue to service clients and assist them with claims. You can’t say, ‘We’re down, we’re flooded, we’re not available.’ You have to be operating as close to business as usual as you can.”

As a large agency with five locations throughout Texas, Wortham may have access to resources your agency wouldn’t during a crisis like Harvey. But even smaller firms can take similar preparedness measures to make sure they don’t go dark when their clients need them most.

1) Develop a business continuity plan. Wortham started developing its plan back in 2005 when Hurricane Rita was headed for Houston. The agency had reserved hot site centers where it planned to send employees if its building sustained damage, but right before the storm was due to strike, Wortham learned those centers were already full of victims of Hurricane Katrina. “The vendor was going to send us to locations outside of Texas to work,” Blades recalls.

Fortunately, Rita missed Houston, but Wortham learned its lesson—and made the decision to shift to a more hands-on continuity plan. Because they come with their own generator and satellite, the mobile recovery units are integral to that vision, Blades says. RentsysRecovery allows clients to reserve the units in advance, “so it’s just a matter of pulling the trigger to get them to come to us.”

The units worked well during Hurricane Ike. But because Harvey swapped out wind damage for floodwaters that limited transportation throughout the city, Wortham had to shift its approach again this time around, allowing more employees to work from home as needed.

That ability to work offsite is “just huge,” says Mickie Comiskey, COO of Focus Insurance & Financial Services in Houston, who notes her staff couldn’t access their office building for a full week after Harvey. “Our office already had a work-at-home program, so we had everyone connected at home, even down to our receptionist. We didn’t miss a beat with regards to being able to help our clients.”

2) Try it out. But simply having a business continuity plan in place isn’t enough. “You have to practice,” says Comiskey, who notes her agency had “already had a couple of little dry runs” before Harvey hit Houston.

Wortham rehearses its comprehensive business continuity plan every year. The IT department double-checks offsite data systems, and all employees work from a virtual desktop. “You have to be prepared so that when something like this happens, it’s just a matter of executing the plan,” Blades says. “A crisis is not the time to start making decisions.”

3) Know how you’re going to communicate. Comiskey says one of Focus Insurance’s saving graces the week Harvey hit was its emergency texting line, which they had set up long before as an entity distinct from its agency phone system.

“Our telephones shifted to our emergency backup, so we needed another way to communicate,” Comiskey explains. “With the texting line, everybody could check in at the end of the day, when we would have a reassessment of whether we needed to shift priorities or tasks to help people who were getting overloaded. I can’t tell you how many conversations we had just regrouping and coordinating who was going to keep track of what.”

Wortham utilized a similar employee hotline system “where everybody called and touched base with everybody else on the status of how they were doing,” Blades explains. “Everyone tried to provide whatever assistance they could under the circumstances.”

If an employee needed to attend to personal matters, another team member would step up to cover their clients. “Some team members would come work for a few hours, but then they’d have to go deal with their own personal situation,” says Blades, who notes that Wortham also used its website and Twitter account to update clients and employees. “You have to work with them on that. In a lot of ways, that comradery makes for an even stronger firm.”

For agencies located in parts of the country that are less susceptible to natural disasters, Comiskey has a word of caution: “You always think it can’t happen to you, but you have to have a plan in case something does happen. We would have been dead in the water without it—literally dead in the water. No question.”

Jacquelyn Connelly is IA senior editor.

Tuesday, June 2, 2020
Agency Operations & Best Practices