Corporate Expertise in Disasters

Over the past decade, the Business Civic Leadership Center (BCLC) has issued a series of reports on the role of businesses in disaster response, primarily focusing on the philanthropic and social contributions that businesses make throughout the various stages of the disaster response process. This report looks at a different issue—what are businesses doing as innovators and developers of products and services to make communities more disaster resilient?

What we are finding is that companies are helping communities manage disasters simply by doing business. In many cases, protecting their business operations in order to get back up and running quickly after a disaster is the best thing a business can do for its community. What we are also finding is that companies are developing advanced technologies to help communities not just withstand disasters but also deliver benefits that contribute to their long-term development.

Business processes are driving risk management. The insurance and reinsurance industries have played fundamental roles in educating business owners and operators about the importance of disaster mitigation and preparedness. It is in their self-interest to encourage businesses and communities to be as resilient as possible, which pays off for everyone if a disaster happens.

Logistics companies are also playing a huge role in helping manage disruptions due to extreme events. As you might expect, UPS and FedEx are on the cutting edge of this as  outlined in the report, but companies like Walmart and Cargill are also logistics experts in terms of getting supply chains flowing again and needed goods and services back into circulation in a community. Cargill’s work in the Horn of Africa is an example of how this is managed. Retailers often get short shrift for their roles in disaster resilience, but many emergency management officials will tell you that a community will begin to return to normalcy once the convenience stores and gas stations reopen. Once people are confident that food and gas is easily accessible, it enables them to shift their minds to other things (as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs suggests). Shell has an important role to play in this effort, and the company explains its system for ensuring that products get to market after disasters. This in no way diminishes the importance of the utilities and the value of getting power and water restored and running.

It also doesn’t diminish the importance of street sweepers, debris haulers, IT experts, and environmental and industrial engineers, all of which are discussed in this report.

Craig Fugate, director of Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), has talked about this incredible restorative function of businesses. In fact, he frequently cites a story about how FEMA was spending a lot of money to ship in ice to a community, only to learn that the local grocery store was already up and running and had ice on hand. As he reasoned, the more business could take care of everyday needs, the more FEMA could devote its resources to more critical situations. In short, ordinary functioning of business was an extraordinary help to the disaster response process.

This report describes ways that companies are thinking creatively about a host of social, environmental, community, and infrastructure challenges; and shows that businesses have a key role to play in disaster resilience, response, and recovery.


[Editor's note: This article is part of The Role of Business in Disaster Response report.]