9 Questions for Developing a Disaster Plan

By: Daniel M. Sutherland

How being prepared helped the Outer Banks Association of Realtors deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Irene.

Last August, the Outer Banks of North Carolina received a direct hit from Hurricane Irene, affecting our organization, the Outer Banks Association of Realtors (OBAR), and our members. While many of our members' homes and offices were extensively damaged, our office, which is three blocks from the Atlantic Ocean and one mile from the Albemarle Sound, suffered little damage. Some of our success in dealing with the storm was based on luck, but a lot of it was due to the disaster plan we developed five years ago. Here are the nine questions we asked during its development:

1. What is a crisis? You must define what a crisis is so your association implements the right response for the situation. Your plan should also include a list of possible crises and a detailed set of actions to take for handling each one. Potential crises can include a natural or manmade emergency or the death of the association president, president-elect, CEO, or key staff member.

2. Who responds to a crisis? Decide which staff member or association officer is responsible for specific actions, including those that need to occur outside normal working hours. For example, during Hurricane Irene, we placed OBAR volunteers in different locations so we could advise county managers of conditions. Additionally, staff members were required to be in touch with county officials around the clock to update our members and keep the message consistent.

3. How do we communicate with our members? Outline who the key audiences are and what the plan is for communicating with them. In the case of a natural disaster, it is imperative that the association have the latest information from a reliable source. Before Hurricane Irene struck, OBAR linked up with the local counties' emergency planning departments and the National Weather Service, leaving us confident we were passing on timely and accurate information to our members before, during, and after the storm.

4. How will we respond to the needs of the community? The association should show its support and reach out to help those affected. For example, you might organize blood drives, provide volunteers, donate supplies, or offer financial support. After Hurricane Irene, OBAR coordinated with a local nonprofit to collect relief supplies donated by the general public, members, and other Realtor associations.

5. How will we respond to the needs of our members? Detail how the association will respond to a crisis that affects business operations within the area. For example, after Hurricane Irene, when power had been restored to our office, we made our space available to members who were still without power so that they could continue to work.

6. How will records be preserved? Preservation of records before a crisis ensures an easy transition to normal operations afterward. At OBAR, all records are computerized, stored on the server, and backed up nightly to an offsite location. If you use backup tapes or hard copies of documents, consider moving that information offsite during the crisis.

7. How do we recover from a crisis? Selected staff and officers should meet to determine a course of action so business can resume as closely to normal as possible. Team leaders should consider recovery efforts for all affected areas (e.g., legal, business, financial, and physical and mental recovery for staff and members).

8. How are "lessons learned" included in the plan? Ideally, lessons learned should include what went right, what went wrong, what worked, and what didn't work, and this assessment should be made within two weeks of the crisis. Incorporate the lessons into your plan so that information is readily available for future use.

9. When should we conduct training? At a minimum, your staff should be trained on the plan annually, and in the event of a pending crisis, training should be conducted beforehand.

In a crisis, members look to their association for leadership and guidance in getting back to business. Planning the first steps of crisis management assures them that you are in control and that their business will continue to flourish with your help.

Daniel M. Sutherland, ePro, RCE, GREEN, is multiple listing service and operations director for the Outer Banks Association of Realtors in Nags Head, North Carolina. Email: [email protected]

Small-staff stats

Organization: Outer Banks Association of Realtors
Location: Nags Head, North Carolina
Staff size: 6.5 staff
Members: 911 (Realtors and Affiliate Members)
Budget: $726,900

Daniel M. Sutherland