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No. 1 business lesson after recent storms? Have a plan

The night of February 5 will be hard to forget for many in North Mississippi. A potent storm system spawned numerous tornadoes, high winds and hail, destroying and damaging numerous homes and businesses, downing power lines and trees and generally disrupting life and work across the region.

Nearly 20 Mississippians were injured, and more than 300 homes were damaged, including 25 that were destroyed, and 37 businesses were affected, 12 of them destroyed, in 12 counties (Alcorn, Bolivar, DeSoto, Lafayette, Marshall, Panola, Sunflower, Tippah, Tunica, Warren, Washington and Yazoo).

Back to normal

The hardest hit was Lafayette County. The county tallied 16 homes completely destroyed with 36 others sustaining damage. Nine businesses were destroyed, and another six sustained major damage. Of the 19 injured in Mississippi, 14 live in Lafayette County.

One of those destroyed businesses was the Caterpillar plant in Oxford. The facility collapsed, and the company says it has contracted with a design and construction firm to bring portions of the manufacturing operation back on line as soon as possible. Caterpillar sent out a statement saying it was working diligently to meet customer demand, and was not sure how the damaged Oxford plant would impact production at other of its facilities.

Max Hipp, president and CEO of the Oxford-Lafayette County Economic Development Foundation, said February 12 that life was returning to something of normalcy, but the memories of that stormy night will live on.

“I know Caterpillar and AbilityWorks were destroyed, and I’ve heard damages were estimated at approximately $30 million,” Hipp says. “It was pretty devastating, but we’ll get through this.”

Lyn Arnold, president and CEO of the Tunica County Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Foundation, says her county was fortunate in that most of the damage in the county was in downed trees and power lines and some blown out windows. Tunica County saw no injuries from the storms. She lives outside of Tunica, and says she heard the sirens that night but thought nothing of it until reports started rolling in. She praised local emergency management personnel, and says she is hearing the county’s businesses have more or less returned to normal operations.

Need for preparedness

In its release, Caterpillar reported that its Oxford employees took cover in two designated storm shelters in the facility, and only minor injuries were reported.

The company said it was communicating with its workers to make sure they understood temporary work and training assignments and benefits information. It says production could be negatively affected for months.

“The most important thing is that our employees in Oxford were able to walk out of that facility with only a few minor injuries,” says Steve Wunning, Caterpillar group president.

The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) offers tips to help prepare Mississippians for the worst nature can throw at them. Ironically, the interview with the Preparedness Office at MEMA for this story was delayed due to a tornado that tore through Central Mississippi February 12, causing damage and massive power outages. No injuries were reported.

Jeff Rent, public information officer at MEMA, says businesses need to take the same steps that residences do to be prepared for a natural disaster, but more of it.

“We tell businesses to do a lot like what people do at home, just on a larger scale,” he says. “For instance, businesses may need a larger store of batteries, and important documents need to be secured and backed up.”

Rent adds that having a disaster plan in place is the foundation for preparedness. Employees need to know if they need to go home and check on their residence, if that is allowed. A head count can be vital in establishing whether all employees are accounted for, and Rent strongly urges a buddy system to help keep track of all personnel.

Businesses need to have a NOAA weather radio on premise, or some other warning system in place to stay abreast of inclement weather. And Rent says businesses need to heed lessons learned in school when preparing for natural disasters.

“Businesses need to conduct tornado drills,” he says. “Schools do them all the time. Businesses need to, too.”

MEMA offers some services to help businesses and residences prepare for a disaster. For some tips, visit www.msema.org.

Rent says MEMA limits the training it provides.

“We are not certified engineers. We can’t, and won’t, tell a business that this room is better than this one in case of a storm,” Rent says. “We will help where we can with planning, because that’s the key. Always, always, always have a plan.”

One piece of good news is that disaster recovery loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) are available. Gov. Haley Barbour declared a state of emergency following the storms, clearing the way for a similar SBA declaration. The SBA declaration covers Alcorn and Lafayette and the adjacent counties of Calhoun, Marshall, Panola, Pontotoc, Prentiss, Tate, Tippah, Tishomingo, Union and Yalobusha in Mississippi and contiguous counties of Hardeman, Hardin and McNairy in Tennessee. For more information, call toll-free 1-800-659-2955.

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at wally.northway@msbusiness.com.

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