Guest Columns

Managing an unexpected emergency or natural disaster

Share this content:
Linda Arters, public and media relations consultant
Linda Arters, public and media relations consultant


"Information is King" when an unexpected emergency or natural disaster strikes. Not just for those tasked with responding to and managing the crisis but for everyone impacted. Family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, news watchers...the lists could go on and on. Emotions run rampant. Initial details are scarce, often inaccurate. 

Imaginations go wild. Stress levels soar.

Today's world of 24/7 news and digital technologies demands that an organization have a well-developed, comprehensive and thoroughly-tested crisis communications plan ready to be executed immediately when the situation warrants.   

Companies no longer have the luxury of a 24-hour news cycle to formulate a public statement, reaction or position paper. The Internet and social media, with the plethora of blogs, mini-blogs, forums, networks, wikis, and newsgroups, have transformed crisis communications management into what has been coined the "half-second news cycle." It demands information instantaneously as well as ongoing, timely and transparent.

Hurricane Mathew provided a recent example to showcase.  The Category 4 hurricane grabbed international headlines as its 120-plus mph winds left behind death and destruction in the Caribbean before taking aim at the popular retirement states of Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas.  

Governors warned of "life-threatening destruction" with expectations of massive storm surge, extensive power loss, and widespread flooding.  News outlets streamed coverage of mandatory evacuations, vehicles inching along highways, aisles of empty grocery shelves, and protective plywood covering store front windows.

The leadership team of Lifespace Communities in Des Moines, IA, was focused on the hurricane's path and related news reports. Its five Florida properties were home to nearly 1,800 residents and four in Palm Beach County were targeted for a direct hit. Site-specific hurricane procedures had commenced and briefings ran non-stop between executive directors and the home office.

"We had gone through very comprehensive thought processes in developing our disaster management plans," explained Ann Walsh, Senior Vice President of Operations. "Including everyone whose lives could be impacted such as family members of residents, our staff, even our local emergency personnel."

With hurricane preparations underway in Florida, Walsh quickly "fired up" the corporate crisis communications plan, a critical component of emergency operations planning that is often overlooked or minimized.  The home office was designated as "information central" and staffed around-the-clock with specially-designated crisis communications teams.  

Walsh stressed the necessity of adhering to the detailed procedures outlined in the crisis plan, which  emphasized critical issues of message consistency and management of legal or risk related topics.  In the "half-second news cycle," accuracy and timing can make the difference between clarifying a fact or dealing indefinitely with a damaging rumor.

Jessica Grant, Director of Communications, managed the crisis communications operations.  She reported utilization of both traditional and social media tools, referencing a hotline, website banners, and social media platforms. The executive directors had been pre-designated as the primary source for all specific property information needs, and also pre-identified as site spokesperson for any requested news media interviews.

"We took a very proactive approach with our communications activities Tuesday through Friday," reported Grant sharing she went without "a wink of sleep" for 48 hours straight.  "That didn't matter at the time because I knew how important our efforts were in reassuring the loved ones of our residents and staff."

"So many of the families wanted to know what was going on that we prioritized our efforts for maximum reach. The hotline was always updated first.  Then, the various properties' websites and social media... we would customize each site to reflect information specific to them," she said.

One hundred-fifty-nine inbound calls were received by the hurricane hotline.  Only 20 calls required a direct response by a team member, all of which were made within two hours of the initial call.

The multi-faceted, often behind-the-scenes efforts by Lifescape staff did not go unrecognized by the "hurricane survivors" and their families.  In the immediate hours and days after Mathew's storm clouds disappeared, an endless stream of handwritten thank-you notes, flower bouquets, home-baked treats, and e-mails flooded into staff offices and Inboxes.

In an email to Scott Nield, his community's executive director, Jerry Berger, 75, wrote, "Marion and I felt compelled to THANK YOU AND YOUR TEAM for the display of the highest level of professional administration, leadership, and compassion to all of the residents of The Waterford.  Each of you gave us your full attention at the expense of being with your own families, just to ensure our comfort & safety."

In a post-hurricane phone interview, Berger explained some meticulous efforts he observed from management and staff members.  "They started having hurricane information meetings several months ago so we learned what to expect with different hurricane categories. When Mathew was coming at us, there were meetings twice a day where Scott explained everything in detail if we evacuated or if we sheltered-in-place."

"The lights flickered only once, but we never lost power," recalled the retired Suffolk Co., NY administrator.  "Our email and phones worked fine. But, I had to calm down my family in New York because of what they saw on the TV news.  I told them I was very impressed with how our staff handled the entire hurricane...Scott had us all feeling totally comfortable."

Hurricane Mathew is now "old news" to many, but the headlines it created provides an opportunity for senior living leaders to challenge the storm. Using your organization's emergency operations/disaster management plans, analyze how your crisis communications plan would fare in a Hurricane Mathew-type scenario.  

Don't have this critical plan yet? Ponder this final thought, as money always seems to talk loud and clear.

The value of having a comprehensive crisis communications plan in today's world of instantaneous, digital communications and the "half-second news cycle" WILL definitely play a major role in your marketing, sales, and  brand reputation efforts...but most of all in your bottom line.

Linda Arters is a 35-year veteran in the public relations industry with expertise in healthcare, crisis communications, and media relations. She is based in Tempe, AZ, and can be reached at

Guest Columns

Guest columns are written by long-term care industry experts, ranging from academics and thought leaders to administrators and CEOs.