A Real Checklist for Real Disasters

Everyone must evacuate at once. The danger zone is currently 50 miles in radius. You can't get a cell signal. What about your wife? Your kids? Your staff? What if? What now? What next?

In a fraternity, they’d call this hell week. At your agency, this is the one week each year when you deliver renewals to your four largest accounts. 

Renewals might be a misnomer this year because you are moving all of the accounts to a market that is better for you and them. Two of the accounts were being non-renewed, and you are not renewing the other two with the existing carrier. 

Its midnight, and you’ve just left your office. Miss Hathaway is still there putting the final touches on the renewal proposals. They’ll be on your desk in the a.m. as you begin this market marathon. In 48 hours, you’ll have worked your magic on 32% of your book – these most important accounts will be laid to rest for another 12 months. 

The staff thinks you’re crazy for waiting until the last minute. You’ve had these offerings in house for the past three weeks. But you think strategically. If you delivered these renewals when you received them, a ruthless competitor would have delivered a better quote a day later. Instead, you’ll be picking up deposit checks from four clients in three cities in a day and a half.

You need gas, but you need sleep more. You can fill up in the morning. Your wife and daughter are out of town, and your son is staying somewhere across town with a classmate. You can’t even remember who or where. Your wife will call in the a.m. and catch you up on the details.

You hit the bed for a few hours of rest. At 3 a.m., you’re awakened by police chatter. Your first thought is that you left the TV on in the den. As your head clears, you realize a police cruiser is driving through the neighborhood announcing an emergency evacuation. The announcement is garbled, but the message is clear – everyone is to evacuate at once. 

You throw on your clothes, grab your smart phone and iPad and head to the garage. As you open the car door you remember the gas you didn’t buy. As you approach the interstate's entrance ramp, you see chaos – total gridlock. You look west to see the sky aglow. This is near the nuclear reactor that has been the region’s source of electricity for decades. Just when you think your situation can’t get any worse, you hear explosions that remind you of the bombing raids in Vietnam. You realize the chemical and oil storage tanks in the industrial corridor north of town must be exploding – the sky is lit up like it’s noon.

The Emergency Broadcast channel’s message is clear – mandatory evacuation – everyone must be out at once. The danger zone is currently 50 miles in radius – you try to call your wife, but the cell phone signal is not adequate or jammed by too much traffic – what about your son? Your wife and daughter? Miss Hathaway? What if? What now? What next?

This is what a real disaster looks like.

As a public service, I offer this initial list of worries for you to consider in advance of a disaster. More serious problems will follow.

  1. Can you reach your wife and kids and find a place to join up with each other?
  2. What about your employees and their families – can they get out safely?
  3. What about your friends, clients and their families, and the community – what about them?
  4. What about the work on your desk? Your renewals? Miss Hathaway has been encouraging you to go paperless, but you’re old school – you still use paper files – a rolodex – a written calendar. You need your office and your desk? You couldn’t get there now if you owned a helicopter.
  5. What about your agency? These are busy weeks. How do you connect with everyone? What if you can’t get back to town for two weeks? What if there is a radiation leak – could two weeks become two months? – two years?
  6. It’s taken an hour to go two miles – you need gas. Your phone isn't working. You’ve got to pee!
  7. An agent friend in New Orleans told you the most important thing to do in a disaster requiring you to evacuate is to get a temporary office and temporary housing so your team and their families can recreate your agency wherever y’all land. How will they know where to go and what to do?  What will this cost? What if the team can’t or won’t get there?
  8. Reality grabs you – electricity failed for four hours in your office last week, and many of the staff couldn’t cope. How will they deal with a real emergency? What if they can’t? What if some quit?
  9. Wait – your four biggest accounts have coverage expiring in less than 48 hours, and they don’t even know the terms of the renewals. The carriers have to be notified. You dial your cell again only to realize there is no signal. Will a connection return?
  10. You look to the right to see your agency billboard with your tag line -- “We’re at our best when your problems are at their worst!" You were so proud of that theme when you first heard it. Will this prove to be a lie displayed on a billboard? What about claims? What next? 
  11. The radio reports are now catching up with the disaster and evacuation – all motel rooms are now filled in the first 40 miles outside of the evacuation perimeter. Nearest available housing is at least 90 miles away. It’s now 5:30 a.m.
  12. Suddenly, your worst fears are realized – the governor is announcing that radiation leakage has occurred and that no civilians will be allowed back into the evacuation zone for at least 30 days and probably 60.

You start preparing a “to do list” in your brain – not for 60 days but for the next 24 hours. Is this too little too late? It’s the best you can do, but it is the wrong time to be doing it. If only you had done this sooner. 

Got the picture?

Here’s a “to do” list that might help mitigate damage by future disasters if you plan ahead:

  1. Understand that disasters (s_ _ _) happen – disaster awareness, preparation and planning can mitigate the damage for you, your family, your agency and team and your clients.
  2. Disasters are events – the planning and plan implementation are a process – a critically important process.
  3. Don’t plan in secrecy – engage your team, your clients/prospects, community, experts and carriers. This involvement may prove to be logistic and marketing genius.
  4. Don’t dictate the process – engage all in the discussion – find the best ideas.
  5. Be certain that your operations are not location- or paper-dependent – be virtual, with access from afar. The good news is that this is now doable – years ago, it wasn’t. Back up systems always.
  6. Visit with carriers to build strategies to mitigate the shared challenges all will face. What works best for the insureds, the carriers and your team? If a catastrophe doesn’t force you to evacuate, offer hospitality and kindness to the storm troopers in your communities – they need it.
  7. Create a crisis communication plan and identify who can speak for the agency – what the message is and what the media needs to hear - even if it is just signs in the windows of your office. Remember, electricity and phones may not work for days or weeks.
  8. Give clients a policy ID card (or a thumb drive with their policy info) and carrier contact information to carry in their vehicle. A policy in the safety box at an unoccupied home is of no value.
  9. Establish contingency plans with a fellow agent to facilitate their relocation to your office or your relocation to theirs in a worst-case scenario. Discuss plans to find temporary housing, phone and computer and Internet access for the families and team of the displaced agency. Remember that there will be “No Vacancy” signs quickly appearing after an evacuation.
  10. As you and your team begin recovery and claims handling – allow time to comfort (group hugs) each other and pray (there are no atheists in foxholes).  Constantly monitor your team, too, for post-traumatic stress disorder – some can handle disasters, some can’t – assign work according to cope-ability.

This is far from a complete list, but it is an adequate starter kit – the process and the engagement of others will lead you down the path you need to go – “the road less traveled.” Godspeed!

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