Utility powers up its expertise after a devastating tornado

Chesapeake Energy helps its employees and the community recover from a natural disaster, and it learns lessons to prepare for the next crisis.

Editor’s note: This story is taken from Ragan’s new distance-learning portal, RaganTraining.com. The site contains more than 200 hours of case studies, video presentations, and interactive courses. Learn more about this session.

A devastating May 20, 2013, tornado hit Chesapeake Energy employees where they live and work, challenging the company to take care of its own at the same time it responded to meet overwhelming community needs.

The powerful tornado, with winds clocked at 210 mph, roared through Moore, Okla., and adjacent communities in suburban Oklahoma City, killing 24 people, injuring 377, and doing an estimated $2 billion in damage.

“Here in Oklahoma, we have had our share of natural disasters,” said Teresa Rose, senior director of communications at Chesapeake Energy. “Through each of these situations, we try really hard to be prepared, number one, but also learn from those experiences.”

An afternoon killer

Disaster struck around 3 p.m., an unusual time for most tornados to appear. Rose said they usually hit in the evening, after 5 p.m. when the heat of the day soars. Also unusual about this tornado was that it came with considerable notice.

“Unlike hurricanes, with tornados if you have a 30-minute notice; that’s big, that’s huge,” Rose said in this Ragan Training session, Emergency response:When disaster strikes close to home—and work. “We did have a little bit of notice and quickly put out some weather alerts.”

She said the human resources department used geomapping software to identify company facilities and employee homes in the projected path of the tornado. Automated warning messages were sent to employees’ home and mobile phone numbers. Electronic message boards in Chesapeake offices were tuned to live weather coverage.

Rose said the early warnings may have saved lives and certainly prevented more injuries as workers and their family members were able to protect themselves.

After the tornado hit, the Chesapeake priority was to “take care of our employees,” she said. “Figure out what their needs were and get them the services they need.”

Reaching out to employees

By plotting employee addresses on maps that showed the swath of destruction, Chesapeake officials were able to reach out to colleagues who probably took a direct hit. They also worked to contact other employees who were farther away from the trail of total destruction left by the tornado, which was 1.3 miles wide at its peak and destroyed 1,150 homes. They were asked if they needed lodging, food vouchers, medical attention, clothing—anything to help them.

“Our HR team did a fantastic job of immediately responding,” Rose said. To better prepare for future disasters, she said, the company will refine its emergency notification plans, and create a list of anticipated needs and the people and organizations that can be counted on to meet them. It will also develop a detailed plan for dealing with damaged facilities.

“We literally had employees calling supervisors to ask, ‘Where do I report? My home wasn’t affected, but my desk is gone,'” she said. “We have fantastic employees and fabulous managers, so they all figured it out.” But a plan that featured automated instructions would have been more timely and “relieved some anxiety.”

After several vendors said they wanted to donate to affected workers, Chesapeake became an “information conduit” for services and products for victims, she said. It also worked with insurance companies to provide assistance to employees and connect them to their insurers when possible. Many victims lost insurance documents and identification cards in the tornado.

Money and manpower put to work

While Chesapeake was working to help employees in the hours and days after the storm, it marshaled resources for the communitywide recovery effort. It donated $1 million to the American Red Cross of Central and Western Oklahoma and organized and announced volunteer opportunities for employees. It also deployed its emergency response team.

“A unique part of our industry is we do sometimes have accidents, we do have blowouts,” Rose said. “We do have emergency crisis situations” that demand urgent response from specially trained and equipped employees. Chesapeake’s emergency response team, based in Kansas, arrived in Moore at 7 a.m. May 21, to start work.

“I’m very, very proud of our response team,” she said. “They were one of the very few, if not the only private group, that was certified and qualified to go into that disaster area to start doing some of the early recovery and repair work.” Only after trained emergency crews stabilized the area would volunteers be allowed in.

“That was a great lesson for us, and for me,” Rose said. “Every one of us has a unique characteristic. We all have something different that we have to offer a situation. Sometimes it just takes figuring out what it is and figuring out a plan of how you activate it.”

Provide unique assistance in time of need

“There’s only so much bottled water that a disaster needs,” she said, and encouraged companies to identify the special skills and technical support they might contribute to the community in a time of crisis. Survey employees to find out their interests and where they’d like to help.

Chesapeake set up Web pages listing opportunities for the “tons of volunteers” who wanted to lend a hand, Rose said. The pages also had links to the local food bank, American Red Cross, Salvation Army, and United Way—for those employees looking to contribute time or money to the relief effort.

Among their many volunteer efforts, Chesapeake employees had a collection drive for backpacks to give to elementary school children and a bake sale to benefit colleagues (it raised $8,000). They also collected supplies needed for debris-removal teams.

Rose stressed that the community relationships you nurture before disaster strikes will serve you well in time of crisis.

“If part of your corporate culture and your corporate responsibility are to be of assistance in this kind of situation, you’ve got to have those relationships prior to the event,” she said. “One of the things that positioned us to be impactful was that we had ongoing relationships with those nonprofit entities whose purpose is to respond and provide for these kinds of needs.

“I knew exactly who to call. I knew the people.”

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