Dealing With Disasters: Business Steps to Take When a Disaster Strikes

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By Neal Coonerty, Owner of Bookshop Santa Cruz

Every disaster brings its own unique destruction. The Gulf Coast devastation that resulted from Hurricane Katrina is Biblical in scope, overwhelming with sorrow, and is our national shame to bear. In the midst of all this death and human suffering, it is hard to think about dealing with the problems created for businesses in a disaster zone. But we do, because healing involves recreating a healthy community that includes such businesses as independent bookstores.

Think about the possibilities for your own store: A major natural catastrophe hits -- whether it is a hurricane, earthquake, tornado, or ice storm. It is large enough in scope to damage your community or building, or, perhaps, it closes your area for weeks or months. It could be a man-made disaster, such as a toxic spill from an overturned railway tanker car or a major terrorist attack. Have you thought through your responsibilities or safety concerns when a disaster hits you?

Honestly, spending time preparing for a major disaster is one of those good intentions that always ends up on the business owner's back burner. So, if you can't devote yourself to planning for every possible scenario, at least incorporate disaster review into other must-do tasks.


Yes, we all know that dealing with insurance is dull, but there may be a moment when it is the most important document you own. Every year you have to sign up for insurance. When you do this, stop and examine how your coverage deals with a major disaster.

Are there exclusions for "acts of war" or "acts of God" or for such specific natural disasters as earthquakes? How does your policy define these terms? What does the "business interruption insurance" cover, and when does it kick in? It's essential to have an understanding of what's covered and what's not.

In a disaster, insurance may be your best bet at being made whole, but you had better find out about your coverage and the company that provides your protection. Also when a disaster hits, get help to carefully read your insurance policy and to help represent your interests with the insurance company. It's a good idea to talk ahead of time about this to your attorney, who will want to review your policy, too.

Evacuation Plans

Think about an evacuation plan in conjunction with your next staff meeting and put it on the agenda. Create a safety team that will report to the staff at the meeting. What are the safest routes out of the store and is every passage clear of hazards? Who is responsible to guide customers out? Are flashlights available near workstations? Who will be responsible for locking the doors? When is it okay to just to run for your life? Give your staff time to ask questions about policies and priorities.

Other questions are: Is there time for employees to retrieve their purses, jackets, and personal items? Our staff's purses, with money, credit cards, checkbook, paychecks, medical cards, etc. were all trapped in a condemned building after the 1989 earthquake. Is there time to grab financial records? Have you kept a complete computer backup off site? Since cash is king in a disaster, should someone grab all the available cash? Keep records of the cash you take, but it will help to have available cash for you and your employees.

However, make it clear to your employees that their safety and the safety of customers is always the highest priority, and, given the situation, personal safety may be the only priority in an evacuation.

Assess Your Situation Accurately

In order to survive a disaster, you must provide the leadership that can accurately understand the situation your business is in. When an earthquake hit Santa Cruz, I knew that my customers had not gone away; my building had gone away. Therefore, if I could find a place to operate, my customers would return. However, in a major hurricane, homes are often completely destroyed and customers leave. These assessments may inform the basic decision regarding whether you can reopen soon, put your business in hibernation for a while, or abandon your business. Take a hard look at your situation and don't allow for wishful assessments. Pragmatic analysis will help you make the tough decisions that a wounded business needs to make.

Don't Forget Your Staff

You will have your hands full, but don't forget your team. If you can reopen in a reasonable amount of time, you will want to work to keep your staff together. Help each other out. Stay in contact. Keep sharing information even if information quickly changes as the disaster situation changes. Create a designated place for staff to meet outside the store.

Depend on the Kindness of Strangers

When you have been hit hard, you need help. It is sometimes hard to ask for help. It is even sometimes hard to accept help offered by others. We are in a great industry, and you should look for help there. Publishers will reassess your payables and forgive them or work out a plan to keep you in business. Booksellers will help each other -- accept their contributions and help. Your customers will be willing to pitch in, especially if the disaster has not overwhelmed their own homes and jobs. The Red Cross and the Salvation Army often will help. Hopefully, the government will once again learn how to help in a timely way.

People often feel the need to help after a disaster because it gives them back a sense of control after so much in their world has seemingly gone out of control. Accept their help and offer to help others because you will need to gain back that same feeling of control.

At our darkest hour after the earthquake, my staff and I did not know what we could do -- but we had to do something. We were waiting to hear whether we could rescue any of our inventory and fixtures. Without them we were finished. But we just could no longer sit there and wait for the authorities to make these decisions. It felt too much like we were becoming victims. So we came up with a plan for action. We decided to hold a street book party and ask our customers to each donate five good books from their shelves and bring them to our party. Their donation was to raise funds to keep Bookshop Santa Cruz and our staff going. We printed leaflets and sent out announcements. We found tables to set up in the street. Our plan was to accept these book donations and then resell them to the public at half the cover price. The staff was going to work the event. It felt good just to be able to do something, to be booksellers again.

On the day of our event, we were overwhelmed with donations. People in our community were looking for a way to help the merchants who were most affected by the earthquake. We gave them a way to help in a concrete manner. Thousands of people donated five or more good books. Some people donated their five favorite books and then bought them right back. The whole weekend was an outpouring of caring and community. The money helped us survive. The outpouring of kindness was a lot more important.

Now, let's hope you never need this information and the only disaster you have to deal with is that damaged shipment rolling in the back door.

Neal Coonerty is the owner of Bookshop Santa Cruz, in Santa Cruz, California, a former ABA Board member, and the immediate past president of the association.