Stay Afloat Through Any Disaster: Insights learned from hurricanes Maria & Irma in Puerto Rico

By Maria Rosa Puras, Founder & Chief Insights Strategist, Insight Marketing Touch, Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, mpuras@insightmarketingtouch.com

In this article, you will learn from my very personal account of the impact hurricanes Irma and Maria had to marketing research businesses in Puerto Rico. I will share valuable insights to disaster-proof your business and give specific business continuity tips for conducting global research during hurricane season.

2017 Puerto Rico Disaster Case Study

In August and September 2017, the United States and Caribbean experienced three major hurricanes: Harvey, Irma, and Maria. Harvey was the second costliest storm to the United States and Maria the third. Hurricanes Irma and Maria, two powerful category 5 and 4 hurricanes, hit Puerto Rico within two weeks of each other; the experience of living through these hurricanes and their aftermath has been life changing. As a qualitative researcher. The insights into life after a disaster are rich, and as a qualitative researcher, I’ve been inspired to share them with qualitative researchers and entrepreneurs.

After hurricane Maria, my qualitative practice was paralyzed for four months due to the destruction of the power grid and telecommunications infrastructure in Puerto Rico; my business was not prepared with a disaster recovery plan nor a business continuity plan. Along with many other entrepreneurs and small business owners, I thought that these plans were for larger corporations and was confident that my large technology providers’ plans would cover my basic business needs including email, internet, calls, and data backup. I did not expect to be disconnected from the internet or cloud for so long—I expected to be without basic utilities for a couple of weeks up to a month but was completely unprepared for the island-wide blackout of both power grid and telecommunications networks.

These events brought a worst-case scenario unanticipated by government, businesses, and the population (see “Can you imagine living through the following real-life scenario?”). Many large corporations, and the government itself, experienced failure in their disaster recovery and business continuity plans.

The impact to qualitative marketing research was significant. Marketing research projects were paused and cancelled until further notice as new product launches or advertising campaigns were postponed. When research started back a couple of months later, groups had to be done during daylight hours because the streets were dark and unsafe after sunset.

Personally speaking, my firm had a qualitative taste test postponed due to Hurricane Irma. Fortunately, as a local moderator, I was able to coordinate the new date even though wireless communication was down because I knew where my recruiter lived. Luckily, the facility had a backup power generator and the focus groups had a good show rate, so we were able to complete the project in time, just a few days before Hurricane Maria formed and threatened our island once again.

During and after Hurricane Maria, I was writing the report with some difficulty because there were few places where I could charge my computer. Due to lack of internet and email, we delivered the report in person to the client’s offices where the client priority had shifted to reestablishing and securing operations instead of a new product launch. The downside to not being prepared was that I used part of my savings and retirement accounts to survive financially—and this is why I want to help advise you on how you can disaster proof your business.

Disaster-Proofing Your Business

The US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) estimates that 40% to 60% of small businesses close permanently after a disaster. A natural disaster can happen unexpectedly, or with some warning in the case of a storm. In recent years, an increase in natural disasters including powerful hurricanes, tornados, wildfires, earthquakes, flooding, and tsunamis has affected the world. In addition, other events such as cyberattacks, power outages, terrorist attacks, theft, data breach, and corruption can interrupt normal business operations. You may think that your business is not at risk for any of these but consider that your technology, facilities, and service providers might be at risk—and this will have a subsequent impact on your business.

There are many resources on disaster recovery (technology) and business continuity (operations) planning that I recommend you check out. The following overview is for my fellow QRCs, especially those in small practices with virtual offices.

  1. Create the simplest business continuity and disaster recovery plan for your business

A business continuity plan documents the processes a business will take to re-establish operations in a minimal timeframe in the event of a business interruption. In the case of a qualitative research consultant (QRC) and small business, it can be as simple and concise as a one-pager or as complicated as needed. The plan should detail key internal/external contacts with alternate contact information (phone numbers and physical addresses). Further, it should provide a list and locations of company assets, data and access information, equipment, and external resources that can continue business operations in another location. It should reference critical documentation location and backup, technology backup policies, redundancy, alternate office facility options, SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures) for various business interruptions and disasters, as well as document emergency response procedures, communication policies, and business interruption action scenarios, insurance needs, etc.

A disaster recovery plan is focused on technology response during a business interruption. The objective is to protect business technology and to restore data, software, and access to areas of business. As you know, protecting and having access to research data and computer files is vital for a qualitative marketing research business. Not only are backups and redundancy important, but having alternative storage solutions in case your business has to operate offline is also mission critical. Because the world changes quickly, testing and revising the plan is as important as its creation.

  1. Create a plan with your external resources

Plan ahead and address your needs with facilities, independent contractors, recruiters, technology, and data/communications providers in the eventuality of a business interruption. Be sure you know the answers to these key questions:

  • Do your suppliers and service providers have a plan? What is it and how does it impact your business?
  • How long can your business survive without internet, wireless communications, electricity, and/or other?
  • How will you contact your recruiter, facility, or other suppliers in case of a disaster/business interruption?
  • When will you add alternate resources to a project and how will you notify them?
  • For what level of income loss and operation cost increase is the plan designed?
  1. Include social responsibility actions during a disaster

In Puerto Rico, research organizations that had a business continuity plan were able to operate within two days of the hurricane and provide support services to their clients and employees. They offered clients office space and internet access because they could (and just think what that might do for client loyalty). One firm had planned for the types of research studies they could offer post disaster, which minimized revenue loss.

Similarly, consider if you may have an opportunity to transfer your skills to disaster relief efforts. For me, weeks and months went by without active projects or requests for proposals.

With my livelihood threatened, I started inspecting residential property damage for insurance companies. Fortunately, the skills I learned doing in-home interviews combined with my analysis and report-writing abilities were transferrable to conducting insurance damage reports. In addition, I learned some real estate appraiser skills, such as calculating a dwelling’s area, replacement value, and repair costs. Although the income was not comparable, at least it covered some expenses and kept me occupied and productive, two things that are vital to building resilience.

QRCA members could consider planning how they can support members after a disaster. Offering subcontract projects or temporary relocation offices to fellow members not able to work is invaluable to those experiencing the aftermath of a disaster. From this experience of living surrounded by destruction, the action of offering a lifeline of work will motivate a member to be resilient, creative, and optimistic, which are essential traits to thriving after a disaster.

Tips for Business Continuity during Hurricane Season

Consider the following tips for research studies in markets vulnerable to tropical storms and hurricanes.

  • Ask facilities about their disaster recovery and business continuity plans.
    • Do they have an alternate energy and data source?
    • If they are recruiting, how will they coordinate and reschedule in the event of a business interruption?
  • Have alternate methods of communications besides email and cellular phone or with different wireless service providers.
  • Have a local QRC on backup and ready to support business continuity for the project in case you are not able to arrive due to flight cancellations.
  • If possible, try to complete the fieldwork before the storm, as it may take months to redo and the results post storm are atypical.
  • When should qualitative projects be postponed? Ask the local resource or facility to confirm the following suggestions based on storm and market.
    • Five to seven days before: external QRC conducting research within market as leaving after a hurricane may take weeks and have an enormous cost.
      • Two to three days before: local QRC conducting research.
  • Have a plan to relocate temporarily, if possible, outside of the affected area.

Final Thoughts

Two years after the hurricanes, my marketing research business has recovered, and I’ve grown resilient to stay afloat during any disaster. In addition, this experience has ignited an interest in improving the disaster response experience for small businesses and entrepreneurs worldwide. My goal is that all businesses, regardless of their size, be prepared in the eventuality of any business interruption.

As Les Brown said, “It’s better to be prepared for an opportunity and not have one, than to have an opportunity and not be prepared.”

Can you imagine living through this real life scenario?

  • In the first weeks after the storm, all business transactions were manual, cash, and/or in-person with limited operation hours, menus, inventory, and capacity.
  • Fuel distribution logistics failed, affecting the transportation system, supply chain distribution, emergency backup generators’ fuel supply, food distribution, health care services, and interruptions to businesses dependent on these supplies.
  • Many businesses and people dependent only on wireless or internet calls had no means of communication.
  • Communities were isolated due to collapsed bridges and fallen vegetation. Senior citizens were trapped in high-rise condos without running elevator, water, and food.
  • Call centers and switchboards were down, affecting many businesses and their clients. For example, I could not use emergency roadside assistance and had to find a tow truck driver at his home to coordinate towing service.
  • Media organizations were off-air or had no audience, except for some radio stations.
  • Corporations shifted marketing and advertising dollars toward operations and employee/community outreach programs.
  • Some businesses closed operations or laid off employees.
  • Humanitarian relief for basic needs was the priority, including shelter, water, food, and health care.
  • Hospitals offered limited services and supplies. The chronically ill and those who depended on electronic equipment and refrigerated medications struggled to continue treatments and survive. As a result, many died after the storms had passed.
  • Consumers had one or two daily missions to get necessities such as food, fuel, water, ice, or wireless signal, spending hours in line for each mission.
  • Time in traffic increased significantly because street lights were not operating, and many intersections were gridlocked continuously. A fifteen-minute commute turned into a two-hour trip.
  • Both businesses and homeowners had difficulty resolving their insurance damage claims—forcing them to make costly repairs on their own. To this day, many claims have not been resolved, especially large corporate, building, and residential claims.

My car flooded as we lost the key during the storm’s rising waters. Getting alternate transportation was difficult because rental car inventory was limited due to damage—and priority was given to disaster relief workers. I had to install a backup generator in my home/office, and the cost to run it for eight to ten hours per day was four times more than the electricity bill; finding refueling sources was challenging.

BONUS INSIGHT: Have cash and spare keys in an emergency bag.

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