Schooled by Irma; Disaster Prep


Well, much to my dismay my September blog was interrupted by Hurricane Irma. She has come and gone, leaving a wake of devastation as well as an emotional toll that is difficult to measure. As Southwest Florida and the rest of the state recover and rebuild, I have reflected on the need for a disaster preparedness plan in every veterinary practice. I am not going to touch on all aspects, but just a few of the really impactful measures that should be taken and planned in advance. Here is the link to the AVMA's disaster prep page AVMA.

This seems like a no-brainer but I must admit, having never experienced a hurricane before it was not easy to think through all of the contingencies when putting a plan together for Florida practices. Even after consulting with hurricane veterans for the less obvious tips and tricks and reading great information from FEMA and the AVMA, I was unsure I had enough information to truly handle a massive amount of devastation.

Much of the prep was easy and common sense. Everything of value was moved to safe location, unplugged if need be and bagged, tarped or stored in a cupboard to prevent water damage from ground flooding or a roof leak. Pictures of all assets, an asset list with serial numbers and value and a copy of the business insurance policy were sent off site electronically. This should be a routine occurrence for any unforeseen disaster. I usually update this information once a year. Being in the "cone zone" June-November I'll recommend this annual check is done in May so as a storm approaches later in the season this will be one less thing to worry about, and the information will be very current.

Refrigerated goods is a tough one. If you lose power you're going to lose vaccines and other cold goods. The manufacturers were absolutely fabulous with assisting in replacing these goods; some gave account credit for damaged goods, some replaced, some gave discounts to replace goods. If there is any way at all to take cold goods to a location where they can be stored safely I recommend doing so. Replacing them will cost you and for some practices this really hurt.

Just like our homes, practices have insurance to cover our "Irma's", but please review and understand your deductibles. Many pharma's would only credit for product that was not covered by an insurance claim. Most practices did not make a claim because of the extremely high deductibles. It just didn't make financial sense. What hurt was not only losing the product and paying for the replacement, but the lost days of revenue only compounded the financial pain. Protect goods that are expensive, especially those that will not warrant an insurance claim. Try if you can to ballpark an out of pocket number your practice can live with. Be sure to hang on to your spoiled goods as well, do not throw them away as most were collected by the vendor reps.

Next, consider the stress of an impending disaster like a hurricane. Unlike flash flooding or a tornado, staff are working tirelessly at home boarding up, buying supplies and deciding whether or not to evacuate. You won't know until a few days out what staff want to do, and tempers run high when there is an expectation to keep a practice open "as long as possible" but staff want to help their families prepare or evacuate. Choosing a timeframe ahead of a storm will benefit all. Find out who will be staying, how many hours can they give the practice, and then choose a closing parameter if you can ... 24/48 hours before a storm makes landfall to see to their homes, families and evacuation plans. With this in place, all staff know they will not be expected to work into the 11th hour. Some obvious exceptions here with e-clinics and the like that had a facility and staff able to stay though the storm.

Returning to work was also a bit chaotic. Don't count on staff that evacuated to be back quickly, so plan ahead for those that stay to be in touch as to their availability to help you re-open. You'll need time to assess damage if any, put your practice back together, re-order supplies and let your clients know you're back in business.

Finally, think through how you will communicate with clients and staff. With texting and apps like WhatsApp, teams had an easy time staying in touch. Be sure you use your voice mail, website and all social media to keep clients abreast of your plans for closure and re-open. In our area many clients panicked because shelters would not take pets without up to date vaccines. The week of Irma's roll in to town was absolutely insane with appointments. Some practices closed well ahead of landfall, some were open as late as Friday before landfall. As long as you set good expectations for your clients, they should be able to see you in plenty of time to have pets needs tended to pre-storm. A solid plan and timeline will also decrease stress for staff allowing ample time for them to plan for their own pets and families.

Here's hoping we don't have to do this again anytime soon, but when we do, having a plan of action that keeps the chaos to a minimum is good for all.

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