Business operations and financial performance are disrupted by severe weather on a global scale, impacting a growing number of companies and facilities worldwide. Hurricanes, flooding, wildfires, and other extreme weather events regularly force facilities to shut down and halt operations and often cause direct physical damage to buildings, infrastructure, and assets.
According to the global reinsurance company Swiss Re, insured losses from extreme weather events globally rose to USD 112 billion in 2021, the fourth-highest since 1970.
Facilities preparing for various weather challenges should take preventative measures to reduce risks and minimize operational disruptions. Although no one can avoid severe weather, how businesses respond before, during, and after each event will directly impact the overall outcomes of the event, including how well they keep personnel safe and protect assets and whether they can keep their doors open.
However, despite the potentially devastating effects of severe weather, many companies struggle with outdated or generic weather response plans that are not as extensive as they should be. A robust and actionable business continuity and emergency response plan that addresses vulnerabilities and hazards can mitigate operational downtime during severe weather events.
The backbone of any robust emergency response plan is a vulnerability assessment. By identifying risks and assessing vulnerabilities, businesses can become better equipped to recover rapidly and safely from severe weather events and reduce losses appropriately.
When conducting a vulnerability assessment for weather response, there are three main components to look at: the type of severe weather that may threaten your asset locations, the impact the severe weather would cause to the facility and employees, and the likelihood of the severe weather event happening. Once the vulnerabilities are identified, a detailed plan can be developed that includes potential risks to facilities and assets and outlines how the company will respond to the threats to protect the facilities and maintain safety. Preparing for a probable weather scenario is better than using generic plans that can put the facility at risk of unexpected failures and challenges.
Planning for worst-case weather scenarios requires a thorough understanding of the capacities and limitations of a facility. A vulnerability assessment aims to establish a relationship between safety, business continuity, and the bottom line by quantifying the overall exposure of weather risks to the facility and addressing individual weather risks in terms of preparation and probability.
Response planning starts from the ground up, assessing all threats to the facility to eliminate uncertainty if the hypothetical becomes a reality. The first step in any vulnerability assessment is to look at the area's history of severe weather events. What types of events tend to occur where the facility is located? When do these events occur? What anomalous events have happened in the past five years? Could changes in the climate affect future events?
When assessing vulnerabilities to your facilities and their functionality, facility managers should consider several weather events, such as:
With warming temperatures and clashing air masses, the threat of severe thunderstorms, flooding, rainfall, damaging winds, and tornadoes could increase. Strong winds can push over foliage and trees and block roads during any major storm, while loose debris can damage buildings, power, and telephone lines. Facility managers should also especially consider the impact of power outages. Power outages are among the top business disruptors and are becoming increasingly common, especially in the U.S., where severe storms could become more frequent and intense. Thunderstorms, lightning, hurricanes, and tornadoes wreak havoc on aging electrical grids, and even the most seasoned utility will struggle to keep the lights on when destructive storms hit their hardest.
It is not a new phenomenon, but it has occurred more frequently and abruptly in recent years. A First Street Foundation study reports that floods could shut down a quarter of all critical facilities in the U.S., and things could worsen due to climate change. Temperature increases lead to an increase in evaporation from lakes, oceans, soil, and vegetation, causing heavier rainfall. Furthermore, rising sea levels are causing more flooding in low-lying coastal areas. Facilities, especially those in urban areas, should understand the potential threat of flooding and have an emergency plan in place if water starts closing in. Flooding can damage buildings from the ground up, increase electrocution risks, and impact transportation to and from facilities.
Cold and sub-freeze temperatures can create operational difficulties and safety concerns for facilities. Pipes and machinery can freeze, operations may halt, and assets may sustain long-term damage. During heavy snowfall, people can become trapped indoors, roofs may cave in, roads may be blocked, and transport options may be limited. Facility and emergency management personnel should identify any temperature-sensitive equipment, technology, or machinery that may malfunction or become dangerous to use below a specific temperature. Furthermore, structural weaknesses in buildings that may be impacted by heavy snow should also be identified.
Warm temperatures can overheat and cause long-term damage to machinery and increase wildfire risks, threatening your facility and impacting air quality in the area. Machinery may also become unsafe to use in high temperatures. Facility and safety managers should also consider that heat is the number one weather-related cause of death in the U.S. and a leading hazard worldwide – more dangerous than lightning, flooding, hurricanes, and tornadoes in an average year. Remember that the definition of extreme temperatures will vary depending on the facility's vulnerabilities.
Wildfires are destructive, devastating, and unpredictable. The Union of Concerned Scientists, a U.S. non-profit organization, reports that wildfires are increasing in frequency and severity every year, with climate change being a possible significant driver due to temperature rise, early snowmelt, and dry conditions. When a wildfire threatens a facility, safety managers need precise, ongoing insight into how current active fires, smoke, air quality, and forecast fire danger may impact their operations, assets, and employees.
Understanding what to expect at the specific location of the facility is key to building robust business continuity and emergency response plans. For example, Florida-based businesses should ensure their facility infrastructure can withstand strong winds during hurricane season, as well as any possible tidal surges from the storm. Facility owners in California need to be aware of the potential risks and dangers associated with wildfires, including smoke and air quality. New York-based facilities will have to account for the cold temperature limits of machinery and prepare for arctic blasts, as well as for travel disruptions due to heavy snowstorms.
However, in light of increasing climate-related anomalies, facility managers would do well to prepare for the unexpected. For example, in 2021, a polar vortex reached areas along the Gulf Coast, causing sub-freezing temperatures, power outages, numerous fatalities, and billions of dollars in damage.
When addressing negative weather impacts, it is essential to know not only what type of weather causes problems but what the impact of the severe weather will be. For example, what possible damage could occur if the temperature remained below 28°F for 12 hours? If the temperature or heat index is forecast to rise above a certain threshold, do certain precautions need to be taken? If so, what precautions? And when do they need to be taken?
Once the weather threats are identified, facility managers should consider their potential severity and impact probability and prioritize the weather events based on their overall danger to the facility. A practical method to manage the various threats is to classify them as either slight, moderate, high, or extreme threat weather events, depending on their intensity and likelihood. Every possible weather event requires individual risk assessments to account for all possibilities.
Slight and moderate risk weather events typically threaten the accessibility of the facility, while high and extreme risk weather events typically threaten the facility itself, as well as the employees. For example, if the weather event is a slight risk, any response would generally be short-term. These weather events usually do not cause severe destruction but may cause, for example, street flooding and travel delays. When experiencing moderate weather events, one typically gets something more widespread and prolonged. During slight and moderate risk weather events, a facility usually needs provisions on-site until the roads open if staff cannot travel to the office.
During high and extreme risk weather events, facilities may need to shut down depending on what the facility can withstand. Operations may need to be relocated to an alternate work facility. For businesses that operate 24/7, typically, a small ride-out team might stay in the main facility to ensure essential operations are kept running while other employees are sent home or to the alternate work facility. For the most extreme threats, a total shutdown may be necessary for the main facility. Employees also need to be provided with enough time to prepare their families and homes for the severe weather event.
Vulnerability assessments clarify the actual threat severe weather events pose on facilities and identify any weak spots in existing emergency response plans. Furthermore, they help inform the appropriate actions to take before, during, and after a severe weather event through preplanned information and tips to aid decision-making under stressful conditions.
Every possible weather impact must have an appropriate response. To determine the optimal emergency response, facility managers should establish the proper weather hazards risk thresholds that determine when to execute mitigating actions to maximize the balance between reliability and cost. For example, oil refineries typically decide to shut down a few days before a hurricane makes landfall if the forecast is for a landfall in the vicinity of their facility. This is to ensure that a safe shutdown is conducted. In order to make the best possible business decision, all potential decisions must be considered in terms of their financial and safety implications. Risk analysis methods, such as cost-loss modeling based on the intensity and probability vectors of the business impact, are helpful in this regard.
Business continuity and emergency response plans need to be flexible and help make timely decisions as weather-related emergencies evolve quickly. By addressing the relevant weather risks and assessing the facility’s vulnerabilities, facility managers become better equipped to make the right tactical decisions and ensure their buildings, infrastructure, and assets remain safe during a severe weather event.
Derek Ortt is the Business Continuity Manager and a senior Tropical Meteorologist at StormGeo. He has 15 years of experience forecasting tropical cyclones and helping businesses mitigate the impacts of severe weather threats.
Originally published in Facilities Management Journal.