Operating After a Disaster - One Business's Success Story

By William T. Alsbrooks

In August of 2005, as Hurricane Katrina roared toward shore, my employer, Anteon Corporation, found itself in the bull’s eye.  We had about 20 people working in New Orleans and another 70 sixty miles to the east in our Bay St. Louis, Mississippi office. I was a Group Vice President working out of Annandale, Virginia with responsibility for those offices along with the local Vice President who lived in Slidell, Louisiana – also directly in the storm’s path. At the time, Anteon had about 9000 employees producing over $1B in annual revenue as a Tier 1 technical services company. Anteon’s primary customer base was the federal government and mostly the Department of Defense.  One of our main jobs out of the Mississippi office was research and tracking of hurricanes and typhoons for the Navy.

We had been watching Katrina for days.  When the Cat 4 hurricane took direct aim at New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, we asked our head of IT to take the central computers and servers to his home inland.  There, they would be safe from the storm surge forecast to devastate downtown Bay St. Louis where Anteon’s office was located.  Despite pre-storm efforts to determine employees’ plans, communication went out as Katrina made landfall and we had no idea where people were or their status.  What we did soon learn was that much of New Orleans was under water and that the Mississippi Gulf Coast had caught the brunt of the hurricane’s sustained 125 mph winds and nearly 30-foot storm surge.

As we restored communications and operations shifted to the Anteon office in Pensacola, Florida, two questions loomed.  Were our employees safe and what would happen to our operations in Bay St Louis and New Orleans?  Four days after the hurricane hit, I asked for a meeting with Anteon executives at the Fairfax, Virginia headquarters to discuss our response.  Managers from the Gulf Coast offices participated via speaker phone from Pensacola as Anteon’s COO and some 20 other senior level management members from across the company listened to the head of human resources lay out the details that proposed plan.  Our head of HR reported that she had been in contact with her counterparts at the larger government contractors on the Gulf Coast and that they all planned to give their employees termination notices, instructions on how to apply for unemployment, and a flyer on how to file with FEMA for assistance to rebuild their homes.  She said that she assumed Anteon would do the same.

After much discussion, I spoke up.  “I think that we can do better than that.”  I described how a few years earlier when I was heading up a project for Dynamac Corporation in Southern Maryland, a much smaller hurricane came through damaging about ten of our employee’s homes and displacing the families.  To keep workers’ paychecks coming while they rebuilt, we set up a “Leave Bank” where employees could donate their already accrued leave.  It was then converted into money and put into an account that the affected employees could charge against instead of having to use their leave or go without pay.  We also set up a “Money Bank” where employees could donate money so that the affected employees could withdraw cash whenever they needed it to rebuild their homes.  It worked flawlessly and it cost Dynamac almost nothing but some administrative personnel time.

So that afternoon, I suggested those options and two more. I proposed that we create an “Adopt-A-Family” program where Anteon offices or directorates could adopt one of the 80 families that had been affected by the hurricane.  And lastly, I suggested that we set up supply chains from the other Anteon offices to bring in necessary supplies for restoration of the destroyed homes and offices using funds from the Money Bank to pay for whatever was needed.  In this case, food, water, gasoline, cleaning supplies, building materials and generators – all of which were in very short supply in Bay St. Louis and New Orleans for months.

A decision was made to immediately dispatch two RV’s to Bay St. Louis with cleaning supplies and materials, generators, tools for clearing debris, removing carpet, removing sheetrock, gloves, masks, fix-a-flat and SNAKE BITE KITS.  One of the RV’s would be used as a temporary workspace, so it would carry needed office supplies.

It was the Friday afternoon before Labor Day Monday, so our COO adjourned the meeting saying that he would discuss the suggested plans with Anteon CEO when they all returned to work on Tuesday.

The good news spread quickly that Tuesday morning when Anteon announced we would:

·      Advance sufficient leave for all Katrina-impacted workers so that they would continue to receive full paychecks.

·      The Money and Leave funds would be set up.  Our CEO contributed the first $100,000.

•     The Adopt-A-Family program would be established.

•     $500 would immediately be direct deposited into each effected employee’s bank account.

But first, we had to find our workers!  Anteon ran ads on local Bay St. Louis and New Orleans radio stations asking employees to call the Pensacola office to check in.  It took almost two weeks before we accounted for all of our people.  There were no fatalities, but most of their homes were damaged or completely gone.  For some, only foundations were left.

Money and leave donations came pouring in from Anteon employees around the country.  In the first 120 days, over $500,000 was raised and distributed to the impacted families on an as-needed basis in increments of $5000, $10,000 and $15,000.  This immediate help was critical since most insurance companies were very slow in providing any financial help.

The “Adopt-A-Family” program was quickly set up because it was early September and back to school time.  Wish lists were coming in from the families with detailed descriptions of needed clothes, shoes, supplies, etc.  Each “adopter” took the families’ lists and fulfilled them all as best we could.

We established “help” caravans from our other offices – even as far away as Fairfax and Chesapeake, Virginia – where groups of volunteers would go down primarily to Bay St. Louis with trucks of supplies to help clean out and rebuild homes using the monies collected to pay for whatever was needed.  When building supplies were not available locally or gasoline was scarce, we sent supply trucks from states where the items could be bought.

The decision to take the computer system server home turned out to be a lifesaver.  We were able to get the system reestablished during the first week so that as employees were able to work again, they had the computer system up and available.  And, we kept our customers happy.  Many of our customers even made space available at their facility for us to work from.

Word spread throughout the government agencies and contractors on the Gulf Coast about how Anteon had treated our employees during this crisis.  Anteon even received a humanitarian award for its treatment of our people.

Anteon HR became a champion for the impacted workers, serving as custodian of the collected monies and seeing to it that every penny donated by Anteon employees went directly to the Katrina survivors.

Eight months after the storm, our local VP called me to report that Anteon HR had reached out to ask if any more money would be needed to support the Katrina-effected employees.  The response was, “No. We are done.”  HR replied that it was time to close the accounts and dispose of the money.  I was asked what we should do.  I suggested that we throw a very large party and give it all away to the Anteon New Orleans and Bay St. Louis workers who had been through so much.  It was almost $500,000.  It was truly a “loaves and fishes” moment.

In the end, it was Anteon employees who contributed the money and the hard work that it took to restore the lives of our colleagues.  It cost Anteon almost nothing but administrative costs to make this miracle happen.  And lots of goodwill was created.

What Anteon did could be replicated by any company after a major crisis or disaster.  It takes thinking creatively and seeing employees as valued assets to be protected – especially in a time of need.