I’ll never forget landing in Rockport, Texas, on 30 August 2017, just hours after Hurricane Harvey tore through the seaside town on its way toward Houston. I’d never seen such devastation – structures flattened, boats scattered, no electricity and no mobile-phone service.
That day, I couldn’t imagine that that I’d soon witness similar destruction from Hurricane Irma in Florida and from Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. Nor did I expect that during this timespan, our people would also be responding to the most destructive wildfire in the history of California and a 7.1 magnitude earthquake in Mexico.
For telecomms company AT&T, the challenges from August to October 2017 were unprecedented. Ferocious natural disasters in quick succession that sent our people to the frontlines from Northern California to Mexico City, to the US Virgin Islands.
We’ve been in business more than 140 years, and our mission has always been the same – to connect people. That’s pressure-tested when areas are drenched with 50 inches of rain in just a few days or incinerated by fires hot enough to melt cars. But it’s at just those times that communications are most vital.
We know this won’t be the last time waves of disasters move through a region in quick succession. The world is vulnerable to factors ranging from climate change to expanding coastal populations to terrorism. So what can we learn from these recent ordeals? And how do we prepare for the next ones?
Lesson 1: Be prepared
Disaster preparation doesn’t begin with your emergency response plan. It’s a long-term process that starts when you make decisions about your operations and infrastructure. In 2012, we committed to invest aggressively in resilient, high-capacity fiber cable to power our network. Its resilience paid off, helping us maintain – or quickly restore – communications capabilities during the repeated crises of 2017.
Also, we stood ready to activate well-rehearsed plans at a moment’s notice: mobilizing technicians and volunteers from around the US, sending emergency vehicles with fuel and satellite equipment, and sandbagging critical facilities.
Lesson 2: Lead with compassion
Reputations are earned during tough times. “We connect customers to their world” – that’s our brand promise, and on normal days we operate smoothly. But during emergencies, you have to prove you really mean it.
In the wake of these disasters, thousands of tired, scared people lacked not only phone and internet services but also basic necessities. Our AT&T stores became community distribution points, connecting customers and non-customers with not just prepaid phones but also water, food, clothing and power to recharge their devices.
Lesson 3: Come together
Crisis situations have a way of erasing normal dividing lines. It takes the collective power of many to right a world turned so upside down.
Throughout every storm, it always took often fierce competitors to work together for the betterment of the community. We shared information and facilities with other communications companies throughout the crises. They did the same with us.
We also had to improvise, going outside our regular supply chain for fuel and generators. To get people and supplies to devastated Caribbean islands, we caught rides on military planes, helicopters and ships. And to restore internet access in Puerto Rico, we continue working with Google on Project Loon.
Lesson 4: Collaboration goes double for first responders
Our first order of business was working closely with first responders and government officials. For us, that’s an obligation. Clearly, public safety depends on how well they communicate.
That’s why we concentrated on getting thousands of cell phones and travel chargers into the hands of emergency responders. We also provided rescuers and agencies with priority access to our network. We even assigned employees to help in government command centres.
These efforts benefited from relationships developed in winning the bid for the US’s FirstNet first-responder network last year. A unique public-private partnership being built by AT&T, FirstNet will greatly improve disaster recovery by providing a nationwide broadband network reserved for emergency responders, police and fire departments. In replacing fragmented systems with standardized communications, the network will make true regional and national coordination possible and guarantee always-on communications through automatic priority access to our state-of-the-art network.
Work on FirstNet gets under way this year. We’re confident it will be a major advantage in the years to come when the next Hurricane Harvey or Irma hits.
Lesson 5: People make the difference
Flying into the Caribbean, I spoke with one of our technicians from the state of Georgia. He was answering the call to his 58th storm. He was poised and confident. His default attitude was set on “Go”.
You can’t flip a switch to make employees race into action. You can’t demand that they push themselves to exhaustion for the benefit of someone else. Motivation like that comes from creating and sustaining a culture that encourages, rewards and recognizes service and compassion.
There’s no other way to account for the many stories of courage and ingenuity: Employees slept in a sweltering Texas central office for days to keep back-up generators running. Out of other options, a team in Key West cooled an overheated roof-top facility with 4,000 gallons of water drawn from a swimming pool. And with Puerto Rico still paralysed, an employee there rode a bike 25 miles to report to work.
Natural disasters are about more than downed cell towers and impassable roadways – the real impact is on people. Rebuilding might take weeks, months or even years. But it can start immediately, with human touches that return a sense of normalcy. That principle should be at the heart of any company, organization or government’s disaster-recovery plan.
Overall, I’m proud of how AT&T responded. From my slightly biased perspective, it was remarkable. But it wasn’t perfect. Going forward, we’re determined to do better.