October 13, 2018

Companies are changing the way we weather natural disasters

Carol Cone

Natural disasters are becoming a new reality for many Americans. In 2017 alone, 25 million people, or 8% of the U.S. population, were affected by a natural disaster –  a “historic year,” according to FEMA.

More often, corporates are responding before, during, and after natural disasters to serve affected employees, customers, and communities. Historically, companies have responded to disasters by providing the basics of food, water, and shelter – often via cash donations to relief organizations. But in the past few years, we have seen more companies bring their competencies, products or services, and people to disaster situations in innovative ways. And they are changing the way communities across the U.S. weather and recover from disasters.

FEMA’s Waffle House Index is a real tool, and it’s not sponsored by the breakfast chain – just inspired by it. Open 24/7, Waffle Houses will only close their doors under extreme circumstances. Locations in hurricane-struck areas often remain open before, during, and after storms – as long as it’s safe to do so. Waffle House’s logic is that their restaurants can meet the basic needs of affected communities, serving first responders, rescue personnel, community members, and employees alike by providing food, water, shelter, and power.

FEMA now activates the “Waffle House Index” during storms to assess how severe a storm might be. The idea is that if a Waffle House plans on closing, the situation could be dire and require more presence from FEMA. As Hurricane Florence neared the coast, Waffle House once again readied for the storm: keeping stores open to provide food, water, shelter and power to evacuees and EMS / rescue teams. Waffle House CEO Walt Ehmer and a team of employees from around the nation traveled to areas affected by Florence to support relief efforts.

Waffle House was by no means alone in its response. In the week Florence made landfall, companies took significant, innovative steps to help affected communities – from remotely updating car batteries to lifting cellular data caps:

Airbnb’s Open Homes Program was activated in advance of Hurricane Florence, allowing displaced people and emergency response teams to find free, temporary, and safe lodging in affected areas.

Amazon launched an Alexa donations feature, allowing any Echo user to donate by saying, “Alexa, donate to Hurricane Florence Disaster relief.” The company also donated 100,000 food items and 30,000 bottles of water to Feeding America. Finally, Amazon dedicated space in 40 of its Eastern warehouses to donated goods.

Anheuser-Busch halted operations at its Cartersville, GA brewery to can water instead of beer. AB sent more than 300,000 cans of drinking water to North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia. Miller-Coors joined AB, donating 80 pallets of drinking water to American Red Cross shelters near its Virginia brewery. Smaller breweries like Charlotte’s Blue Blaze Brewing joined in, filling kegs with drinking water for residents, restaurants, and local businesses in need.

Apple donated $1 million to the American Red Cross to support response and relief efforts. Of the donation, CEO Tim Cook said: “The Carolinas are in our hearts. To the employees there, first responders, and everyone in Hurricane Florence’s path, please stay safe. To help those affected, Apple is donating $1 million to the Red Cross.” In 2017, Apple gave $5 million to Hurricane Harvey relief.

Delta waived bag and pet fees in advance of the hurricane, and capped fares from areas in Florence’s path. Most all other major U.S. airlines reduced or eliminated some fees.

Discover Financial Services pledged to match customer donations up to $500,000 to the American Red Cross. Customers had to donate via their Discover card or by using their cardmember rewards bonuses.

GAF, the largest roofing and waterproofing manufacturer in North America, donated $1 million via direct relief, financial aid, and roofing materials for more than 200 homes of the most vulnerable citizens in the hurricane impact area.

Lyft offered free rides up to $15 in North and South Carolina in advance of Florence, as part of a partnership with United Way. Evacuees who called 211 received a code they could plug into their Lyft app for the subsidized ride.

PepsiCo donated $1 million and 350,000 meals to relief agencies in an effort to support its “hometown” of New Bern, North Carolina. Indra Nooyi, PepsiCo’s CEO, said on Twitter: “#NewBern is the birthplace of @Pepsi. We wouldn’t be here without you and we are here for you now and always.”

Target activated a “Green Team” as part of its early response policy. The cross-sectional team includes members from the company’s HR, corporate responsibility, properties, distribution, security, and other departments. As Target has 130 stores and 20,000 employees in storm-affected regions, the Green Team identifies the needs of each community — whether stores must close or stay open, which products will sell out, and how stores and employees can be protected. As of Monday, September 17, all Target stores had been reopened to guests.

Tesla again pushed over-the-air updates to expand the battery capacity of its vehicles, allowing owners to get further without needing to stop and charge. This is especially critical as some areas experience extended periods without power. For areas with power, Tesla opened its express charging stations for free use.

Tyson Foods operated a cook site at local plants, preparing hamburgers, hot dogs, and chicken for anyone in need of a hot meal. The company dispatched “cook teams” from four different states.

Verizon offered free calling, text, and data for all Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia Verizon Wireless customers. AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile offered similar support to affected customers.

Walmart created a hurricane response web page and live blog to provide immediate updates on the situation and Walmart’s response. Walmart concurrently announced a $5 million donation to match $2.5 million in employee and customer giving to hurricane relief efforts.

Whether companies helped via cash donations, in-kind support, volunteers, or competencies, it’s heartening and commendable to see so many corporations doing something. With that, the response to Florence illuminated three key insights:

  1. Every company should have a disaster response strategy. Disaster response is a core corporate citizenship strategy for any company – not just those in the most aligned industries of construction and home improvement, utilities, etc. Any company can activate in the communities where its customers live and work to provide immediate, meaningful relief. Because in the wake of a devasting disaster, even the smallest gestures – like the ability to exceed cellular device data caps and reach family members without worrying about fees – can help communities recover.
  2. Go beyond the basics. Beyond direct cash donations, we are seeing more companies use their competencies, products, platforms, and services to support those in need quickly. Covering the basics of food, water, and shelter remain critical, but gaps in other needs — like communications and transportation — are more often being filled by corporations with a significant presence in disaster-struck areas.
  3. Companies can still do more. Hurricane Florence has passed, but the journey to recovery for affected communities is just beginning. While preparation and swift response on behalf of corporations has changed the way Americans cope with disasters, not all efforts are sustained. We believe this is the next challenge to corporate America: how can companies continue to support communities in need when the winds die down and floodwaters recede?

Unfortunately, there will be more natural disasters. Yet, each one provides a powerful learning experience for communities and companies alike. It’s our hope that with increased corporate support, smart response strategies, and selfless giving, communities will be better equipped to prepare for, endure, and recover from natural disasters.

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