When Marian Pierre lost her small business in Hurricane Katrina, she rebuilt it.
Hurricane season began June 1. While experts predict it will be a quiet one, sometimes the unthinkable happens. Just ask Marian Pierre, founder and CEO of Crescent Guardian Inc., a security firm headquartered in New Orleans.
When Hurricane Katrina struck on August 29, 2005, “no one expected it to be what it was,” she says. But the Category 5 hurricane destroyed her home and her office: Thirteen-foot floodwaters ruined security technology, records and files, and Pierre and more than 250 of her employees were evacuated from the city.
Two days later, Pierre returned to CGI’s ravaged headquarters in a boat. “I was devastated. I was in tears. I thought we’d never be able to bring it back,” she says. “Then I got angry. I thought, ‘We can’t let this beat us.’”
Pierre spent a month and a half sleeping in her car as she worked to fill immediate staffing needs, purchase equipment and coordinate displaced employees. “It was like a startup,” she says. Today, CGI has rebounded, with 215 employees who provide physical security and technology to clients around the nation. Pierre offers her advice to small business owners in hurricane-prone cities.
Form an emergency response team.
When Katrina hit, Pierre’s emergency preparedness teams took action to protect clients with immediate security needs such as armed guards. These teams of six to 12 employees had already completed disaster training programs and worked with CGI’s clients to develop a security plan in case of a disaster. After Katrina, the teams deployed to clients’ facilities, including the Louisiana state Capitol, to provide security in the chaotic aftermath.
Line up a temporary location.
Now, Pierre pays rent for two buildings—offices in cities outside New Orleans that are on high ground—she hopes she’ll never have to use. In case of a hurricane, CGI’s equipment and operations will be relocated to these temporary offices. The company’s employees know the locations and the time frame when they need to report after a disaster, and the facilities are stocked with supplies such as extra uniforms and ready-to-eat meals.
Keep cash on hand.
One of the disaster’s saving graces was that Pierre was able to use personal savings to fund her business, as she couldn’t access business accounts for a week because the bank had shut down. She recommends that business owners keep cash in a home safe or a safe deposit box in a bank outside of the hurricane-prone area. Payroll was due the Friday after Katrina hit, and Pierre was able to pay her employees with personal checks, as well as purchase uniforms and firearms for her emergency response guards. “I had people depending on me,” she says. “I couldn’t let them down.”
Invest in cloud-based technology.
“The biggest problem during the storm was communication,” Pierre says. In 2005, CGI used a local phone and Internet service, so she couldn’t pack up her communications system and use it anywhere else. Instead, employees relied on texting.
Today, the company uses a cloud-based system for communications and data storage. The communications system, hosted by a third party, can be operated via the Internet from any location. A bonus is that data is backed up daily in an off-site server outside the city, giving Pierre peace of mind that client information is accessible—and protected—after a disaster.
Use your network.
Two days after the storm, Pierre received a call from a national bank, whose officials were on their way from Washington, D.C., to pull their funds from their New Orleans location bank—and they needed security escorts. Pierre called two guards, among her only employees left in the city. To find experienced security personnel, these employees searched their contact lists to help Pierre round up a full security team of retired state police troopers. “You have to use your relationships that you’ve built over the years,” she says. “It was people helping people that helped us come back.”