Staying on Course Despite the Ravages of Hurricane Maria
After two hurricanes pounded Puerto Rico, just meeting payroll and keeping the doors open is a big achievement.
Nothing prepared me for this. As an entrepreneur I expected to have my share of crises, but nothing like the utter and total devastation that the one-two-punch of hurricanes Irma and Maria wreaked in Puerto Rico in September (and continues to wreak). The storms wiped out power and cell phone service,threatening basic needs like water, food and medicine. It also blurred the lines between business needs and personal survival.
When Hurricane Irma hit, it left most of the island without power for five days and an unstable grid that was not equipped to handle the next blow.
We again lost power on Sept. 19 when the strong winds preceding Hurricane Maria swept the island. With compromised infrastructure and only three power lines connecting the island's northern economic engine with the southern power generation plants, it's been hard for the electric company to get power back on line. On Nov. 2, as the first of these lines was connected, we finally had some spotty power at our office. Our hope is that the other two power lines will also get up and running within a few weeks.
This lack of power has affected our business and personal lives tremendously in ways we couldn't have imagined. On the business front, as Maria approached, we were working against a September 21 deadline to deliver a custom product update to a key client. Realizing the impact that this major storm would have on our software engineering services business, we moved up the deadline for client delivery by two days. That meant an all-hands-on deck effort as we worked to finish the job.
Since our power was already out on the 19th, we worked out of the offices of ConPRmetidos (a non-profit organization where I'm a board member and which we actively support). While our team members were focused on trying to beat the storm and get the job done, they were also concerned about the increasing bands of wind and rain we were receiving, and worried about getting home safe to their families.
We tried to alleviate some of this personal stress in advance by asking our employees to prepare their homes the weekend before the storm and we setting the expectation that we would be working the days leading up to it.
Another approach we have taken is to treat our business like an emergency room and triage the most important client needs first. By evaluating priorities and deadlines, we have been able to re-assign workloads to make sure we are addressing the most pressing needs first and that all client needs are being met.
At the same time, we have been over communicating with our clients. I made sure to personally reach out to them every day after the storms so they didn't wonder what we were doing or the status of their work. I also know that with no power and spotty cell service, clients may have difficulty reaching me, so I make sure to pre-empt those calls and any concerns by reaching out first, through internet or a mobile connection. We constantly charge our cell phones and portable power banks whenever we have available power.
We earlier had a backup plan in place for power outages, but unfortunately, there were multiple failures. The backup generator provided by our office building was damaged during Hurricane Irma and was not fixed in time. And we weren't the only ones in this situation. Just about every business has been struggling with the same challenges. We're able to overcome these obstacles by working together as a business community and pooling our resources. When one company has power, others come to use it, regardless of whether they are competitors.
Thankfully, since we're U.S. citizens and can travel freely to the mainland without restrictions, we've been able to send many of our team members to work directly at customer sites in the U.S. -- in Oregon, D.C., Texas and other places.
Making the tough decisions.
I felt it was important to tackle the tough decisions right away, and one of the most pressing ones was how to handle employee pay. Many firms opted to lay off their employees for several months with the plan to re-hire them once they were up and running. We are committed to our employees, but also to the stability of our business, so with that in mind, we decided to pay our employees as usual, but we expect them to make up any lost time.
Because of the fuel shortages, we have allowed employees to work from home during this time, with the expectation that they would return to the office once gas was readily available. And because most schools are closed, employees are welcome to bring their children into the office, as needed.
Managing the personal with the business.
One of the most difficult aspects of managing the business during a crisis is balancing personal concerns as well. Since my home generator runs 10 hours a day, we have to schedule our home lives around that. I wait in long lines for hours for fuel, and stand in line for water delivery and other basic needs that we often take for granted. With everything going on in the business, I also need to make sure everything is set on the home front and that my family is safe and sound.
This push-pull between business and personal means that I have to continually make decisions on which most needs my attention.
Related: 8 Ways to Stay Calm During a Crisis
Changes on the horizon.
As a result of this ongoing crisis, we will be making some technology and equipment changes. We will bring on a third internet provider -- we currently have two -- for redundancy; improve our back-up disaster recovery services so it will be easier and faster for us to retrieve our data; and buy our own power generator for our office in order to use the building's generator as a backup to our backup.
We will also revise our preparedness plans for disasters, and document new procedures: how we will communicate, how decisions will be made and what employees can expect.
Two of our biggest assets in handling this disaster were making advanced preparations and having a plan that we were able to adapt on the fly when the "perfect storm" hit and destroyed many of our contingencies.
Looking back, what surprises me the most is the response that many businesses have to the crisis -- paralysis. Many have been so overwhelmed by the enormity of the problem that they aren't sure what to do. But, this paralysis is a death knoll to a business. According to FEMA, 40 percent of businesses don't reopen after a disaster and an additional 25 percent won't survive the year. Businesses in Puerto Rico have an additional strike against them trying to operate in an already depressed economy.
Our response now is to double down on our strategy. Because most of our customers are in the mainland U.S. we are somewhat immunized against the problems of the local economy. We are moving full steam ahead to expand our nearshoring and artificial intelligence services, and we are looking into establishing a satellite office in the mainland.
If there is any silver lining to this disaster, it's coming to the realization that we're resilient -- we can get our business through this disaster, meet client deadlines and keep employees engaged, and find a way to weather any storm that comes our way. We still believe that the best is yet to come.