Government, business officials coordinate emergency protocols
By Mindy Fetterman
Copyright 2006 Gannett Company, Inc.
All Rights Reserved
WASHINGTON — Executives at Home Depot were watching the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York from the company's emergency command center in Atlanta — a room with banks of TVs and phone lines. They saw that rescue workers' boots were being sliced by the smoldering steel remains of the World Trade Center towers.
"We sent 40,000 pairs of work boots to New York right away," CEO Bob Nardelli says.
He's not looking for praise. In fact, he thinks the way Home Depot — and other U.S. corporations — got information about what they could do to help in that disaster, and during Hurricane Katrina four years later, was ridiculous.
"We saw it on CNN!" he says, exasperated.
Now, nearly 30 CEOs have teamed in an unprecedented effort to set up an "emergency protocol" with the U.S. government and charities so that Corporate America can better respond to the next natural or manmade disaster.
That protocol includes everything from a 24/7 direct phone link to the Department of Homeland Security and a website that will have "real time" news about what the government needs from business, to "swat teams" of employees from competing firms. Those teams will fly into a disaster site within 24 hours, assess needs and report back to the government and business community.
The group says it "won't wait for the government" when the next disaster hits.
"We're not saying it in an arrogant or condescending way," says Nardelli, who is chairman of the Business Roundtable's disaster-response task force. "But some of our frustration even before Katrina was having to wait for a coordinated effort from government. We want to set up that cooperative effort now."
CEO members of the task force, the largest ever put together by the Business Roundtable, met for the first time last month in Washington. Frances Townsend, President Bush's point woman on Homeland Security, was at the meeting.
Nardelli called it "an old-fashioned workout," where all parties get into a room, air complaints and come up with solutions. (Nardelli, who used to be a top executive at General Electric, learned the "workout" discipline from then-chief Jack Welch.)
"We're past the venting," Townsend laughs. "Now it's a question of how we can do better. I told them: 'Tell me what I can do better.'"
Who has what, where?
The CEOs told her. They want in on the early planning. They want in on information during a disaster. And they want in on the emergency operations on the ground.
Townsend agreed. She's holding a meeting in November at the White House with the CEOs, officials from DHS and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and emergency operations chiefs from some state and local governments.
"The idea is that this works better if the private sector is involved in planning on the front end," Townsend says. "There's a lot we can learn from business."
The tsunami that hit Indonesia in December 2004, was "a watershed event" for Corporate America, says Johanna Schneider, spokeswoman for the Roundtable. "Companies were stepping up as never before."
When Hurricane Katrina hit, that volunteer spirit kicked in again, but with only limited success. "There was a huge outpouring of support," Schneider says. "But we were unable to get people connected down there (in the Gulf Coast) in a way that could really make a difference."
The CEOs want to harness that spirit and set up better logistics for getting people and supplies to disaster sites quickly.
"We want to make sure they get food and water, and not television sets," says McDermott of SAP. "How do you logistically get things to people who need them at the time they need them? Business can help do that."
DHS is identifying equipment and supplies it would need in various emergency scenarios — a hurricane, a tornado, a terrorist attack.
"In certain disasters, we'll know what we'll need, like water, tarps, housing. And we're communicating that to business" so that contracts can be bid on and awarded before the next disaster, Townsend says. FEMA has contracted with six companies for $1.5 billion in temporary housing to avoid delays such as those seen during Katrina, she says.
Government audits found hundreds of millions of dollars was wasted on no-bid contracts and fraud, from $300 million spent on 10,000 mobile homes that sat unused to $3 million for unused beds.
"There was legitimate concern after Katrina that the government's contracting was wasteful," Townsend says. "We think that if you precontract, you'll do it in a rational way."
In the next year, the CEO task force will assess what supplies and equipment are on hand at U.S. corporations, including companies that aren't members of the Roundtable. Who has the bottled water? Who has the satellite telephone equipment? The lumber and tarps? That way, the government can request and get supplies quickly.
Charities and 'mission creep'
During Hurricane Katrina, charities competed for donations. But companies that were giving millions of dollars felt it was unclear what a charity would handle: Emergency response? Rebuilding? Food and water? Housing?
CEOs saw "mission creep" as many charities were trying to do the same things. "There was a lot of carpetbagging going on" after Katrina, says Kevin Martinez, community affairs director for Home Depot, pointing to 400 new charities that were formed. "We're saying to charities: Don't work in a vacuum. Work with each other. What exactly are you fundraising for?"
Like governments, charities also were overwhelmed by Katrina.
The American Red Cross was sharply criticized in a Government Accountability Office report for being unprepared and slow to react. Since then, the Red Cross has spent about $80 million to triple its warehouse space for emergency supplies, triple its satellite phone availability, and add more volunteers and computer capacity.
"Our mission has been the same for a long time: mass care early," says Jack McGuire, interim CEO of the Red Cross. "But there's a huge problem relative to what people think our mission is. People were upset because they didn't see our helicopters with the Coast Guard out there rescuing people off rooftops. We don't do rescues. We don't build houses. We don't give loans. We don't run hospitals."
The Red Cross and other charities are beginning to work together to coordinate volunteer response, although efforts are in the early stages, McGuire says.