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TGIF: Dispatches From The Storm (Hurricane Sandy)

When a weather disaster like Hurricane Sandy strikes, our first thoughts are for safety. Priorities then shift to getting back to business. But how? We are, quite literally, powerless. A physical office may not be critical in the digital age, but electricity, server access, water, and light are pretty important.

Day 0: Storm warnings. We’ve had plenty of notice about Sandy. The predictions are so dire that, despite some uncertainty, we have spent Friday finishing projects and planning for the possibility that our office could be closed Monday, when Sandy is due to hit New York. A small team comes in over the weekend to get out media materials for a client who’s a critical local service provider. The client’s high level of pre-hurricane preparedness, and the continual weather updates, move us into high gear. We’re also finalizing plans for a Monday meeting which is still on the books. We feel like we’re ready for the storm.

Day 1: Ready. Monday comes, and the weather is actually quite mild. There’s an eerie calm in the city. A couple of us are in, but once the mayor announces a public transit shutdown for 7:00 p.m., we reschedule our meetings and close the office. Anyone coming into Manhattan from the suburbs or the outer boroughs risks being stranded. We’ve tested our VPN, updated our staff contact sheet, made sure all have Cision passwords, and made plans to work from home. No problem…or so we think.

Day 2 AM: Blackout. The power has failed in much of lower Manhattan, where our office is located, and our exchange server goes down with it. Many of us are without power in our homes. No one not already in Manhattan can possibly get into the city, as mass transit is shut down and driving is dangerous. We rely on mobile texting and gmail to triage priority projects and try to find a new base of operations. Those who have power update clients on the situation and communicate with staff. They then move to try to pick up critical assignments, while the “powerless” text updates from cars and the homes of friends.

Day 2 PM: SOS. Top priority: restore regular email and client folder access. Find a place to work with electricity. Yet, many hotels are full or without power or meeting rooms. Friends in apartments with electricity are unreachable. Simple phone calls are arduous. We issue a call for IT and office backup on Twitter that elicits sympathy but no tangible help. Things seem dark, literally.

Day 3 AM: Portable Presentation. A key meeting involving an out-of-town visitor (now stranded for four days) is pushed back another day. But with no recourse, we arrange to meet at our office anyway, to host a creative presentation by flashlight, candlelight, or shadow puppets. At the last moment, we score a fully equipped conference room and two workstations at a corporate HQ! The location makes all the difference. In a matter of hours, the room is transformed, our team members manage to get cars into the city, and presentation bells and whistles are added on the fly.

Day 3 PM:  Server Reboot! We get word that a generous neighbor with electricity has offered rackspace at his office, and if we can move our server there, we can have it back up and running. Yet our office managing agent has locked the exterior door and forbidden access for liability reasons. We dispatch a trusted colleague to plead for and gain entry to the fifth floor, remove the server by flashlight, and plug it in uptown. Less than 48 hours after the power failure, we’re back in business. Some of us learn of the extent of the storm’s devastation for the first time.

Day 4 AM: Base Camp. With a couple of laptops, a rotating shift of Manhattan-based staff and one intrepid Jersey girl, we set up an ad hoc office to refocus on critical client projects. Five people can easily share two workstations with a little ingenuity and plenty of power outlets for recharging! To support a client’s assistance efforts, we dispatch other team members and a photographer to locations throughout the city to gather information and video for media. Yet we can’t reach the most affected areas of the city and its suburbs. Our VPN is up, then goes down again, frustrating our efforts to access customized media lists and materials.

Day 4 PM: On-location luck. We’ve connected with a handful of trusted PR colleagues and freelancers who live in the most affected parts of the city and suburbs. These “feet on the ground” become a lifeline for client storytelling efforts in real time. Meanwhile, we prioritize among the week’s projects and manage to make all but one of our previously scheduled weekly client calls. Two clients have media events slated for the coming week, and it’s hard to know how the storm’s impact will affect them. Anything that’s not relevant to either the storm, or the election needs to be adjusted or delayed.

Day 5: Humming. It’s the third day in the corporate HQ, and it feels like home. We’ve just had word that our office should have power restored by Monday, client work is moving along, and thanks to superhuman staff efforts, our media relations operation is running smoothly. The cooperation of friends, colleagues, and even strangers has been extraordinary. Our productivity soars with renewed access to our VPN. Then, at 6:00 p.m. on Friday we learn that the power is back in our office, apparently ahead of schedule!

Days 6 and 7: Team members, and our associates on the ground, work through the weekend to tell our clients’ stories, report on key developments, and catch up on other work. We are running on adrenaline. Our last report is issued close to midnight Sunday.

The past eight days seem like weeks, but they prove that with ingenuity, luck, and the cooperation of our extended team, we may be without power, but we are never “powerless.” Our situation is very fortunate compared to those who lost homes and family members. Heartfelt thanks to our understanding clients and to the colleagues, vendors, family members, and friends who helped us conduct business, and, we hope, make a difference to those most affected by the storm.

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