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Masters of Disaster

THE PAST YEAR has been the busiest in the 75-year lifespan of Kenyon International Emergency Services. For starters, last December the firm was called in to Thailand to deal with the aftermath of the tsunami that swamped parts of the country. That was immediately followed by the crash of a Helios Airways plane in Greece that claimed 121 lives. Then came Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in the southern United States. These incidents “have literally run back-to-back,” says Jerry Allen, vice president of planning at Kenyon International. “This has been by far the most active period in our history.”

Kenyon’s experience is not surprising, given the scope and impact of recent catastrophes. The hurricanes of 2004 and 2005 alone account for roughly twice as many insurance claims as all previous hurricanes since 1990, according to Risk Management Solutions. And although all the numbers for 2005 were not in as of press time, it was already the costliest year for insurance payments related to natural disasters, according to the Insurance Information Institute.

The one potential benefit to come from all of these experiences is that they can be used by Kenyon and other disaster recovery firms to improve their emergency response efforts in the future. “We do lessons learned every time out. We’re doing it now,” says Dennis Kwiatkowski, vice president of federal programs for Dewberry, a professional services firm focused on engineering that did recovery work related to Katrina and Rita. Following are some of the major lessons that have been derived from these experiences.

Medical Needs

The real death toll for the Thai tsunami that struck Southeast Asia on December 26, 2004, will never be known, but the United Nations speaks of 300,000 dead. As part of the relief effort, the Australian government hired Kenyon to handle the bodies. The firm’s services included identification of human remains and personal effects, family assistance, memorials, and humanitarian services.

Kenyon deployed 130 people, including specialists in body identification, who set up and ran three constantly operating morgues. The job lasted from late December 2004 to August 2005. During that time, Kenyon’s staff was under considerable physical and emotional stress, but getting aid for Kenyon’s staff from local medical facilities and staff in Thailand was difficult, because those resources and personnel were already overwhelmed.

To make sure that its own staff could get the medical attention it needed and continue to work, Kenyon brought in its own medical team, consisting of one doctor and four mental health practitioners.

The mental health team was especially helpful, says Allen. “These people were seeing things that most people would never want to see once in their lifetime—and they were seeing it every day.”

Following the example of Thailand, Kenyon dispatched a medical team to accompany its personnel into Louisiana in late August. This has now become a standard practice for Kenyon missions.

Getting the Goods

Another issue is the need for personnel on the ground to be able to purchase goods. Amidst the carnage of Thailand, an overreliance on credit was a problem for many relief organizations, leading Kenyon to cement its policy of ensuring that its team had sufficient reserves. Staff were afforded loose restrictions on their credit cards so that they would not run the risk of being told they had exceeded their limit when they attempted to charge something or withdraw cash—a critical need in those situations.

For example, local businessmen demanded cash in exchange for providing electrical, building, and earth moving supplies, among other equipment and services. Some relief workers who could only withdraw small amounts found themselves flitting between automated teller machines to build up sufficient sums to pay local vendors.

“There were a lot of organizations who had the money, but did not have the procedures in place to get hold of it,” says Allen. “It is that ability to deploy with sufficient cash reserves or to get hold of that cash readily and easily that I have been sharing with people since I’ve come back,” he says.

Assessing Staff Risks

During the 2004 Florida hurricanes Agility Recovery Solutions answered a client’s plea for help by sending staff into the danger zone before Hurricane Charley struck. “We put people in harm’s way. That wasn’t a smart decision,” says Bob Boyd, president and CEO of the firm.

The company won’t do that in the future, says Boyd. Agility puts clients back in business by providing power, phones, computers, connectivity, and other technology via about 100,000 mobile units to which it has access across North America. But now when clients call before the storm, Agility prepares to go to the rescue by stocking up on equipment, loading the necessary software and images, contacting vendors, and prepping mobile units and their drivers. The firm mobilizes staff only after the real danger has passed. “That’s what we did with Katrina,” says Boyd.

The limitations on what staff should be asked to do were also examined during Katrina by Tim Horner, the managing director of Kroll Inc.’s Security Services Group. One client asked Horner to install a security team in a building that was surrounded by six feet of water.

Horner says, “The questions with that were: What happens if there is a fire? How am I going to get food in? What if there is a medical emergency?”

He advised the client to get everyone out of the building and board it up. “It was a new dimension on providing security that we weren’t normally considering in the past,” says Horner. “We’re now weighing the risks more.”

Another client asked Kroll to rescue about $10,000 from a set of safes throughout New Orleans. Horner refused on the basis that the safes were potentially immovable, under water, and sitting in the middle of areas with reports of armed bandits and little likelihood of police response. He judged the risks too great for his people.

“Companies in this situation are like crime victims—they are not always thinking straight,” says Horner. “It’s important for them to talk to security providers and crisis management people who have been through the process before, to know what is good common sense.”

Backup Teams

Companies involved in frequent disaster response and recovery efforts should also recognize that a disaster makes intense demands on staff. Management should make arrangements for staff to be relieved on some rotational basis.

Agility saw the need for that after six weeks of dealing with the domino-like Florida hurricanes. The company has now made sure it has multiple teams to handle clients in need. “We typically set up for a few days and leave,” says Boyd. “Last year it was week after week, so we’ve trained multiple teams to be able to go out in the field and do all of the functions and be replenished” by replacement teams, he explains.

During Katrina, Agility’s ability to field multiple teams of recovery personnel made it possible to recover 19 businesses simultaneously. Clients included one of the largest retailers in the country, a 45-person insurance agency, and a large construction firm that won a $5 million contract a few days after its operations were brought back to life.

Housing and Transport

Agility also provided its own transportation during the Katrina response, driving around the hurricane zone in a recreational vehicle that served as a makeshift command center. It was the first time that Agility had worked with such a mobile command unit, but it may not be the last. “We will keep the RV idea for the future,” says Boyd.

The firm would have redeployed a recreational vehicle for its recovery operations after Wilma, a hurricane that struck Florida in October 2005, had clients been further spread out, says Boyd. Instead it used hotels to house the 10 staffers working out of Miami, who were mainly concerned with restoring lost power and communications to clients.

Agility’s move to provide its own transport during Katrina was echoed by Kroll. Managing Director Bob Wilkerson of Kroll’s Global Crisis Consulting unit says his team’s inclination was to drive to the danger zone rather than count on being able to tap the scarce transportation resources available on-site, such as rental cars.

“There has been an immense sensitivity in this case among the relief organizations not to get themselves in a position where it appeared they were taking resources that should have been given to the victims themselves,” says Wilkerson. Any company wanted to be in a position to say “we’re only contributing, we’re not part of the problem.”

Dewberry’s Kwiatkowski says housing can be a particularly daunting problem for recovery squads going into a disaster area, so his company has begun sending accompanying housing teams to assist in finding accommodations.

During Katrina, Dewberry had up to four people on the phones looking for rooms for its people. “It’s been a nightmare, particularly during Katrina,” says Kwiatkowski. “We’ve had people staying 30 to 50 miles away…. You really need to think ahead and get a housing team down there.”

Dewberry has about 200 people in New Orleans involved in the restoration of public facilities such as schools, justice halls, hospitals, and jails that were hit by the hurricanes. Kwiatkowski says his staff competes for rooms with about 8,000 federal employees, construction contractors, insurers, and others. “Katrina is the first time we have had to do this [housing team] with any significant numbers. It’s a lesson learned,” he says.


When Kenyon had to bring its own supplies into Thailand from afar, the company was faced with a huge logistical challenge. It had to be able to get containers of equipment from Singapore to workers in Thailand, for example. It was a 24/7 task to keep supplies at the ready. The necessary equipment and supplies needed for the recovery effort were not available locally. Overall, Kenyon had never faced such an enormous logistical task as the tsunami relief, and international supply chains became its lifeblood.

“We’ve strengthened our own procedures for logistical support as a result of the Thailand operation, and we’ve now employed additional logistical staff to build up our own plans and resources and contacts,” says Allen.

During the roll call of hurricanes—Jeanne, Ivan, Charley, and Frances—that hit Florida in 2004, Agility also learned it had to beef up its logistics, notably its list of providers.

“Because the hurricane season was so relentless in Florida, it tied up things you would take for granted,” says Boyd.

Very quickly, Agility’s access to such key items as Federal Express Custom Critical trucks and generators dried up. The firm, which supplies disaster recovery capabilities for small businesses, has since taken on tertiary or even fourth-level suppliers for all of the things it deems critical: satellites, access mobile unit delivery groups, power generation providers, or any other “component that can cause a failure in our recovery of a client.”


The need for planning isn’t exactly a new lesson, but it is one that more and more companies are taking to heart. Following its experience in Florida last year, Agility has begun to provide a predisaster checklist for clients who may be in harm’s way. The basics include assembling insurance policies, financial records, inventories, and other important documents, as well as duplicating them and storing them in a safe place away from the main site.

Then as a specific disaster event appears imminent, other steps include moving records away from windows and the floor; disconnecting appliances and equipment; turning data-center HVAC systems to their coldest settings; and arranging to pay employees in advance in case banking systems are knocked out.

Companies should also, of course, make sure they have a real recovery plan. The plans need to detail how much of the business the company wants to recover and how long that recovery is supposed to take.

Unfortunately, during years of running crisis management and services departments and strategizing responses, Kenyon’s Allen has found that many business contingency plans lack a stated recovery objective set by the most senior executive.

In many cases, recovery planning “is a low-level activity,” that is poorly funded, and because it’s not high on the agenda, “it’s not sexy,” says Allen. “If you want it to be a priority, get top management to state what the recovery objective is, and get them engaged,” he advises.

Likewise, Allen notes that contingency plans are often well-researched and well laid out, but they tend not to involve all parties who have a stake in the emergency.

“One of the biggest failings of contingency plans is that they are too insular and they do not look broadly at all of the other players who need to be involved,” says Allen.

Furthermore, contingency efforts are inclined to be predicated on one particular risk, rather than taking into account all potential risks. Companies should “think about all-risks planning, so you are able to manage any incident that comes along, and not just the one you fear the most,” says Allen.

Dick Andrews, director of Homeland Security Programs for the National Center for Crisis and Continuity Coordination, concurs. He oversaw 19 presidential disaster declarations while director of the governor’s office of emergency services for California in the 1990s. He notes that “the experience of these recent events underscores the importance of emergency preparedness by businesses and contingency planning.”

Companies should also run tests on any plan they develop to look for the bugs in the system, says Larry Berenson, security director for L-3 Government Services Inc. “That is exceptionally important,” he says. “You always discover holes and things you didn’t consider.”

For that reason, he stresses, “any plan that hasn’t been exercised or tried is not really a plan.” Berenson adds that there is one good outcome from all of these experiences: Security directors are being consulted more often than previously about emergency preparedness and management, and business continuity.

Robert Elliott is an assistant editor with Security Management.