September 20 marks one year since Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, just 14 days after the island was hit by Hurricane Irma. Maria, a category 5 hurricane, not only destroyed Puerto Rico’s energy grid and communications infrastructure, but it also upended many lives and left a permanent scar on everyone who survived it.
We are still living with its effects, from an unstable power grid that needs to be redesigned from the ground up, to a collective sense of PTSD that compels us to buy excessive amounts of water and fuel whenever a new storm forms in the Atlantic Ocean. But Maria also left us with an advanced degree in resilience. We learned how to quickly adjust to difficult situations and plow through. The most important lesson that came out of our experience: Don’t give up. Keep moving forward. It’s too easy to fall prey to inaction after a big disaster like a hurricane, but to survive we must resist that urge and act. Otherwise, things just get worse, and inaction leads to further inaction.
Here are five lessons I learned over the past year that stood out, especially in my role as an entrepreneur running a business:
1. Focus on people
First and foremost, make sure your employees and their families are safe and help them in any way you can. The day after the storm, we checked in on all of our employees to make sure that they and their families were safe. We continued to check in with them throughout the emergency and provided as much help as we could. For example, when drinking water was hard to get, we arranged for water gallons to be delivered to the office for everyone, and when cash was scarce, we distributed payroll cash advances. While it goes without saying that employees are the number one asset of any company, when a disaster strikes, the typical employer/employee relationship transforms and becomes one of humanitarian concern.
2. It’s all about communication
Make sure to communicate with your customers, partners and employees, early and often. There is a lot of misinformation, especially after a big disaster like a hurricane. It’s important that you accurately explain the situation to your customers, partners, and employees as well as the plans and courses of action you are putting in place. By letting them know what they can expect, you can help assuage any concerns they may have. Last year, it was heart-warming to see how our customers not only understood the gravity of the situation, but also opened their doors to us with office space and other offers of help.
3. Contingency plans are required
Never underestimate the need for a contingency plan and the importance of communicating it to all your stakeholders. While the contingency plan will likely evolve once a disaster strikes, much of it will still be applicable and it will help you to get things underway quickly.
4. You learn who your true partners are
In addition to communicating with customers, it’s important to share your situation with partners, yet not all of them may understand the true magnitude of your plight. We were surprised to learn that some may focus on your commitments to them and hold you accountable regardless of the circumstances, while other are completely understanding and offer help. You’ll probably spend more time managing concerns from some partners than customers who see the effort and continued commitment that you are providing them. In the end, you will quickly figure out who your true partners are.
5. Always help others, no matter what
Whenever possible, help others. After an event like a category 5 hurricane everyone is affected, and only by helping each other can everyone make it through. That includes competitors, too. When the hurricane hit, we all shared resources and the Internet with partners and competitors alike. And, no amount of help is too small — even if it seems trivial to you, it may make a big difference to whomever you help.
Finally, after looking back at this past year and talking to entrepreneurs who were impacted by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, I have concluded that the major difference between those who make it in a disaster and those who don’t is mainly based on one thing: never giving up.