It took O’Charley’s regional operations director in Hattiesburg, Miss., most of a week to get in touch with the restaurant chain’s Nashville, Tenn. headquarters after Hurricane Katrina pounded the Gulf Coast two summers ago.
This summer, though, Dan Hunter has a company-issued satellite phone that doesn’t need phone lines or cellular towers to operate.
It’s one of the ways O’Charley’s and other Middle Tennessee companies that do business along the Southeast and Gulf coasts have prepared for what forecasters warn could be a severe hurricane season.
Companies such as Cracker Barrel Old Country Store and HCA Inc. have drawn up emergency plans, deployed generators and stockpiled supplies in case any of their communities are struck by a storm.
Last year’s Atlantic hurricane season was unusually mild, with no storms making landfall. But forecasters say this year’s season, which started June 1 and ends Nov. 30, could be far different.
Nashville is far from any coast and usually sees nothing more than heavy downpours from hurricanes. But these enormous swirling storms, with sustained winds above 74 miles an hour, can cost Midstate companies millions of dollars a year in damage and lost business.
HCA, for example, has about 50 hospitals in coastal areas, said spokesman Ed Fishbough. The nation’s largest for-profit hospital chain said hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which smacked Louisiana, Mississippi and parts of Texas two years ago, resulted in extensive and costly damage at its coastal properties.
O’Charley’s, meanwhile, said 13 of its restaurants were closed for periods from a day to several weeks because of Katrina. At least one restaurant was destroyed and hasn’t been rebuilt. O’Charley’s said that massive hurricane resulted in $600,000 of non-recoverable costs, while $1.5 million in losses were reimbursed by insurance.
“There was a significant cost to us,” said Frank Biller, executive vice president of operations.
“The best way to sum up the Katrina experience is learning to survive from the school of hard knocks,” Hunter said.
Among lessons that local businesses have learned and are putting into practice, starting this weekend, are:
– Get a plan. Officials with several Midstate companies that do business along the coast say they are offering training and providing educational materials for employees in hurricane-prone areas.
HCA, for example, has held disaster drills and rolled out a program called Code Ready to keep disaster preparedness on the minds of employees. It includes a “tool kit” with posters and other materials telling employees what to do in case of emergency.
Lebanon-based CBRL Group Inc., owner of the Cracker Barrel Old Country Store restaurant chain, has prepared diagrams that show its managers how to pack store freezers to better preserve food in case the power goes out as a result of a storm, spokeswoman Julie Davis said.
– Stock up. Among the changes O’Charley’s made after Katrina was stockpiling plywood at a storage center in Mobile, Ala., so the company can protect windows in threatened areas. Before, plywood was brought from Birmingham – about 260 miles farther inland, and that caused delays.
HCA, meanwhile, has purchased 17 generators for its East Florida region, which stretches from Miami north to Fort Pierce. Hospitals also have access to 6,500-gallon water trucks that can supply water directly to a hospital if necessary, Fishbough said.
HCA also has purchased aboveground gasoline tanks for 20 hospitals across Florida, and several HCA hospitals in Florida have arrangements with gas stations where employees can fill their cars’ gas tanks after a storm, he added. “If physicians and nurses are not able to put gas in their vehicles, they’re going to have difficulty getting to the hospitals to take care of patients,” Fishbough said.
– Stay in touch. O’Charley’s’ biggest problem after Katrina was communications, Biller said, so the company purchased three satellite phones, costing $700 each, and gave them to key managers.
HCA, which scrambled to set up a network of amateur radio operators to communicate with employees at Tulane University Hospital & Clinic in New Orleans after Katrina flooded the city and isolated the hospital, also is using satellite phones.
– Don’t forget the customers. Once a storm clears, Tractor Supply Co. figuratively stocks its stores in affected areas with essential products such as generators, chainsaws, and rooftop tarps to prevent more water damage. They’re kept at distribution centers in Texas, Georgia and Maryland, with easy access to coastal areas.
“If an event has happened, we dedicate trucks out of our fleet to move emergency supplies to take care of our customers in those markets,” said Blake Fohl, a senior vice president at the Brentwood-based retail farm-supply store chain.
Colonial Pipeline Co., which delivers gas and diesel fuel to the Nashville area, has bought 10 large generators or transformers that sit on flatbed trucks and can be moved into affected areas after a storm.
The generators will help ensure that gasoline from Gulf Coast refineries gets to Atlanta, where the fuel can be put into tanks and pumped to Tennessee, said Steve Baker, a spokesman for the Alpharetta, Ga.-based company.
“Protection for Tennessee comes in making sure the products get to Atlanta,” he said.
– Take care of employees. After Katrina, O’Charley’s executive Hunter recalls filling a humanitarian role.
He contacted employees in his region and provided supplies, including ice to one worker whose diabetic husband needed to have his insulin refrigerated.
“What to do after the hurricane is equally as important as what to do before the hurricane,” Hunter said.
“You have no power (for) two weeks, you can’t get gas, can’t take a hot shower, the water might be tainted because the filtration system is down. It’s like living in a Third-World country.”
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