Communications During a Disaster: Five Lessons Learned

By Michael Hamill Remaley, Vice President of Communications & Public Policy, Philanthropy New York

No matter where you live, disaster can strike. If not a major hurricane like we had here on the east coast it will be an earthquake, a cyclone or a massive storm that causes historic flooding. Regardless, just a little bit of forethought and planning can make a big difference to your ability to keep communicating during a disaster.

Still, even the best of plans aren’t going to cover everything that can go wrong—especially when you can’t anticipate the full extent of nature’s wrath. But it can help a lot. And once you go through a disaster you’ll have a much better idea of what to expect next time trouble strikes.

That’s Lesson One for many of us at Philanthropy New York who experienced Hurricane Sandy’s devastating blow to our region. We learned a few other lessons, which I’m grateful to share (especially now that the power is back on and our office is fully functional again).

Four days before Sandy hit, when it became apparent that things might get bad, we started drawing up a post-hurricane to-do list, which we figured would enable us to be able to stay in contact with staff members, government officials and the rest of the philanthropic community to react, plan and take action.

As much as I’d like to say we were fully prepared, that would be an overstatement.

For instance, we didn’t know that our website infrastructure, which like many Regional Associations is based on a platform housed within the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers in Washington, D.C., would be shut down temporarily the night the storm hit to avoid possibly larger technical breakdowns. We also did not anticipate losing power for such a long time in all of lower Manhattan, which is where our offices are located. The loss of power meant that our servers went down and we had no access to our proprietary email system, our electronic documents, our phone system or the physical space of our office. In lower Manhattan, where I also live, there were no cell towers working and no cell phone service. I woke up Tuesday morning literally and figuratively in the dark, completely disconnected from the rest of the world. It was SO quiet. And scary.

With absolutely no access to any information, I really didn’t know what I should do. Having lived through 9/11, I guess something primal kicked in and I just started walking north from my apartment on the Lower East Side and kept on walking until I hit a cell phone signal 35 blocks later. Lesson Two: After disaster hits—as does the unexpected—be ready to improvise.

With our work phone and email systems down, all staff were accounted for using cell phones and personal email addresses. Lesson Three: Make sure you have personal email addresses for all staff, emails that are cloud-based like Google.com addresses.

On that first day, we were already working to organize a conference call for members who wanted to coordinate responses to the disaster and assembling information for all types of donors about how they could help, and which now resides on our frequently updated hurricane response page at philanthropynewyork.org/sandy. Also on that first day, we were working with our amazing colleagues at the Council for New Jersey Grantmakers to pull together a conference call for regional associations throughout the affected area.

Our website was back up fairly quickly—within 24 hours. So we were able to put a temporary message on our home page giving updates about office closures and what we were planning on doing to react to the situation. We set a time and date and figured out the technical aspects of hosting a large conference call where we could easily manage questions, potentially from a lot of people. Even though we did not have our email system, we were able to tap into our database, which is also based at the Forum, to send out an email to members from a newly created Gmail email address.

With the power completely out at our office with no end in sight, all staff had to work remotely. Thankfully, most were in areas of the city that maintained power and internet connections. Lesson Four: To be an effective communicator during a crisis, you have to already have an established, loyal audience that follows you on a number of channels—blogs, websites, placed media, Twitter, Facebook, etc.

By the time we had our big funder conference call on November 2, which included the Governor’s InterAgency Coordinator for Not-for-Profit Organizations and a representative from the City’s Health and Human Services Department, we were already collecting lots of information about where funds were needed and who was contributing. On that call, we had more than 90 members, who mostly listened in, but also asked important questions about what we could do as a community.

We also had a call that morning with other regional associations in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and throughout the affected area to coordinate our responses. The power came back on at our offices Saturday, and that’s when we got our email system back. After technicians rebooted our systems, we were able to access our electronic documents again.

My biggest take-away—and Lesson Five—about communicating during a crisis like this is pretty simple: When you have a great team of people who are determined to stay connected, you can find mechanisms to make it work. Perhaps I wouldn’t be saying that if cell phone service to the entire region went down completely. But there are so many channels for communicating now that, unless there is absolutely no cell service at all, you can find ways of establishing two-way communication with your key audiences even amidst significant system compromises.

Have you had experience with disaster communications? Any other lessons learned to share? Please use the comment box to tell us your story.

(This post was originally published by The Communications Network on November 6, 2012 and is reprinted with permission.)

1 Response to “Communications During a Disaster: Five Lessons Learned”


  1. 1 Barbara Heisler (@barbara07040) November 14, 2012 at 11:14 am

    I loved that you tweeted out to me! Things were pretty hectic out here in NJ, as you can well imagine, but knowing that my philanthropic colleagues were checking in gave me a reason to smile during a rough time. Thank you. Barbara Heisler


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