Hurricanes. Wildfires. Tornadoes. Floods. Every retailer has the potential to experience a natural disaster up close and personal. This year, the National Hurricane Center forecast a busy Atlantic hurricane season, with the likelihood of 13 to 19 named storms, of which six to 10 could become hurricanes, including three to six hurricanes of Category 3, 4 or 5 velocity. The U.S. Forest Service also predicted a higher-than-average 2020 wildfire season.
This year, the coronavirus pandemic adds another layer to preparing for an emergency. “Especially in this time of COVID-19, retailers are pressed for time, but not preparing for a hurricane or other natural disaster will put them at a distinct disadvantage and will hamper their ability to re-open quickly,” said Craig Fugate, former administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). “This year, all of our planning is going to have to add COVID-19 preparations, too.”
Preparing for the Worst
Whether your store will face hurricanes, tornadoes, flooding, earthquakes or wildfires, the cost of not being prepared, especially in the midst of a pandemic, can be catastrophic to your business. “Everyone’s busy, especially with all the extra COVID-19 requirements, but not planning for a natural disaster can shut down your business for good,” Fugate said.
Preparing for a natural disaster while juggling coronavirus tasks can be manageable. “Most of your planning doesn’t have to be done all at one time,” he said. “You can break it into smaller tasks spaced over several days or weeks.”
Overall, Fugate recommended watching the videos associated with the NACS Convenience Store Emergency Planning and Job Aid resources, which will provide retailers with a solid framework to start disaster preparedness. “While COVID-19 isn’t specifically addressed in the videos, they will give you a place to start your planning,” he said.
According to Fugate, there are several key things every retailer should do to prepare for a natural disaster during a pandemic.
Know the hazards that can impact your location and your employees. For example, emergency plans should include discussing with local emergency management agencies about potential hazards, such as the current local hurricane or wildfire evacuation zone and route.
“Even if your store isn’t in an evacuation zone, your employees might be in the evacuation zone and be unable to come to work,” Fugate said. “That could impact your ability to operate safely and serve your community.”
Create a shutdown checklist. Once you’re aware of the hazards, make sure you have a checklist of how to shut down the store safely, such as securing high-value items like tobacco and lottery tickets, and ensuring electronic equipment is properly protected from any potential water damage. Check generators to ensure they’re in good working order, or contact rental companies to ensure you can get one quickly.
This year, all of our planning is going to have to add COVID-19 preparations, too.
“The better you secure your store if you have to evacuate or close due to a natural disaster, the easier it will be to re-open,” Fugate said. “Convenience stores do a lot for their neighborhoods, providing fuel for evacuations and ice, grocery staples and household essentials before and after a disaster. Retailers need to stay open before a storm hits and open back up quickly after the emergency is over.”
Listen to local authorities. If your store is along the Gulf or Atlantic seaboard, during hurricane season (June 1 to November 30) keep a close watch on any potential storms. If you’re in an area with a high wildfire risk, keep up with whether there’s a drought or other increased risk of fires. “When retailers know a storm is coming, for example, it gives them time to reduce their freezer inventory, make plans to double-bag electronic equipment, etc.,” Fugate said.
Knowing what’s coming also gives retailers time to stock up on essentials, such as fuel, bottled water and ice. “If you’re going to be there for your customers, you’re going to need to have the supplies they’ll need before and after a storm,” Fugate said.
Keep employees in the loop. If you haven’t already, review your emergency preparedness plans with all of your workers. “Your staff should have a clear idea what your emergency plans entail and what their roles will be,” Fugate said. “Give them the steps on how to shut down and secure the store.”
Practice the shutdown steps periodically to help mitigate any possible mistakes during an actual crisis. “The more training you give your staff on this, the less chance something will be missed during the shutdown,” he said. “The last thing you want is to wait to figure out what to do until you’re in the middle of the crisis. Leaving it to the last minute will also leave your customers in the lurch.”
Update your insurance coverage. Retailers should periodically talk with their insurance agent to make sure they have the right coverage in case of a disaster. “For example, businesses need content and business interruption insurance to help them stay in business after a disaster,” he said.
While states are slowly easing back open and Americans are emerging from their homes, the coronavirus pandemic is far from over, complicating emergency plans. Most state disaster planners are scrambling to find ways to provide care and shelter on a massive scale when cramming families into crowded facilities or shelters runs counter to public health guidelines. Those guidelines mean retailers have to consider how to insert the extra cleaning and social distancing into their own disaster plans.
This year, FEMA released the COVID-19 Pandemic Operational Guidance for the 2020 Hurricane Season to help businesses prepare. The document recommends businesses think about questions like:
- Does your response plan take into consideration reduced staffing due to COVID-19?
- Have you updated your plan to continue essential functions with little or no interruption?
- Does your plan include how to protect your employees from both the natural disaster and COVID-19?
- Have you purchased and stockpiled PPE (personal protective equipment) for workers who need it?
For convenience stores, Fugate recommended emergency plans to include extra personnel on-site ahead of a hurricane or wildfire evacuation to help manage long gas lines and keep up with COVID-19 sanitization schedules. “Retailers will have to manage the cleaning for COVID-19, as well as the increased demand for fuel, so having a plan in place will ensure they have both things covered,” Fugate said. “During an evacuation especially, having additional employees dedicated to wiping down touchscreen surfaces at the pump will help alleviate some of the stress drivers might be experiencing.”
Continuing to train employees on why coronavirus guidelines should still be adhered to even while preparing for a hurricane will go a long way to getting them to comply with mask regulations and extra cleaning tasks. “The more they can understand why we’re doing this, the more they will be willing to help stop the spread of COVID-19,” Fugate said.
Remind employees who are not feeling well to stay home, even when your store may need extra help ahead of a potential disaster. “Wiping down surfaces and wearing masks is great, but retailers also need to encourage sick workers to skip work to keep COVID-19 from spreading, especially as more people stop for gas or supplies ahead of an evacuation or natural disaster,” Fugate said. “Establish good, clear employee policies that state it’s safe to stay home when sick.”
A Future Plan
During the pandemic, convenience stores have generated a lot of goodwill in their communities by being open to serve and help customers. Retailers should continue to build upon that foundation by adequately preparing for natural disasters in this time of COVID-19.
“The bottom line is that your customers will remember whether you were prepared for the natural disaster or not. Those who were not prepared will likely not recover as easily as those who were,” Fugate said. “The longer retailers can stay open during an emergency, the more customers they can help.”
Disaster Prep Resources
The NACS Convenience Store Emergency Planning and Job Aid resources help convenience stores identify and enhance their resiliency as they plan, prepare and recover from a disaster.
NACS offers two versions of the program—one that’s free to anyone and one that’s available for NACS members only. The free edition has the Emergency Planning Guide and the Emergency Job Aids and allows for customization by removing any Job Aid pages that aren’t applicable to that particular company. The NACS members-only version gives companies a wider ability to customize, such as adding the store name and logo to the Job Aids and personalizing individual Job Aids to fit the company or even single locations within a chain.
Watch the six preparedness videos, or download the guides at www.convenience.org/disasterplan. There’s a free mobile app, too, with all of the job aids and videos, so employees can easily access them on their phones in an emergency. Go to www.saberspace.org/nacs-app.html and complete the brief enrollment, then download the app on your Apple or Android mobile device.