Surviving the unexpected

December 2008 » Columns
Hurricane Ike and its aftermath presented LJA Engineering & Surveying, Inc., with an organizational crisis that threatened to disrupt its business. As Ike navigated its way through the Gulf of Mexico, we, like most Houston companies, made sure that our crisis management plan policies and procedures were intact to minimize risks.
Calvin T. Ladner, P.E.

LJA Engineering & Surveying, Inc.
Headquarters: Houston
Number of offices: 5
Total number of employees: 325
Year firm was established: 1997
Total billings for last fiscal year: $47.8 million
Hurricane Ike and its aftermath presented LJA Engineering & Surveying, Inc., with an organizational crisis that threatened to disrupt its business. As Ike navigated its way through the Gulf of Mexico, we, like most Houston companies, made sure that our crisis management plan policies and procedures were intact to minimize risks.

Early Thursday, Sept. 11, like many other businesses, LJA closed its local offices to let employees prepare for Hurricane Ike, fully expecting to reopen on Monday, Sept. 15 at our West Houston headquarters. But, as it turns out, our disaster preparedness and crisis management skills were challenged as Hurricane Ike pummeled its way disastrously through the Gulf Coast/Galveston/Houston area.

Here is how we handled this unexpected disaster using our in-place crisis management tools.

Disaster preparedness
We directed employees to our Intranet page with disaster recovery FAQs for inclement weather, outlining procedures for preparation of offices, cubicles, and equipment; how employees would be notified if the offices were closed; how payroll was going to be handled; and how to charge office closure time. We also posted a link to the city of Houston’s Hurricane Evacuation Information Center so employees could be informed and prepared.

Employees grew anxious about Ike as it moved closer and seemed on track to impact the Houston area. So, we posted an interactive hurricane tracker on our Intranet that provided up-to-the-minute weather coverage.

Contingency planning
Our headquarters was severely impacted by Ike, with the building suffering extensive water damage to portions of every floor LJA occupied. This brought the company to an abrupt temporary halt and compelled LJA into contingency planning mode. We had to find temporary office space for our 240 headquarters employees.

Although Ike’s effects landed a devastating blow, LJA never skipped a beat. As Houston’s largest employee-owned civil engineering firm, we have built our reputation based on our employees and teamwork, with our focus on client satisfaction. We were determined to not let Ike impact client relationships, services, and project deliverables—or employees’ livelihood. We established a "war room" at the nearby Hilton Hotel to strategize and execute our next steps.

LJA employees, many without power and suffering damage to their own homes, gathered to manage this crisis, secure office space, and strategically plan many details to keep the company up and running. Departments ranging from MIS to human resources to office services worked around the clock to get the company back on track and moved into the temporary space.

Client communication
Determined not to let Ike impact our client relationships, project managers continued to work with their clients in the war room and in the field. They dispatched teams to client offices to make sure projects stayed on course. Some employees were dispatched to our other offices in East Houston, the Woodlands, and Austin, Texas, to continue working on projects. Clients were contacted via e-mail about our new location and we distributed a press release.

Teamwork
By Monday, Sept. 15, LJA had its phone system and network access in place, along with temporary working tables and supplies. And on Monday, Sept. 22, our 240 West Houston employees officially reported to work in our new temporary space. We were perhaps a little shaken, and certainly inconvenienced by Ike’s devastation, but we had a renewed sense of vitality and belief in ourselves, our company, and our ability as a team to make things happen under the most challenging conditions.

We are grateful to our employees for what the company accomplished during the weeks after Hurricane Ike. The storm left our office in shambles, but this experience clearly demonstrated our company’s spirit in the face of adversity. It also strengthened our commitment to our business relationships and client needs. Our employees pitched in to help during a difficult time for everyone, juggling both professional challenges and personal hardships caused by Ike to make LJA’s transitional recovery operation successful.

In the weeks following Ike, we returned to the damaged headquarters to carefully salvage equipment and vital documents. Wearing hard hats and surgical masks, LJA’s employees worked diligently in the recovery operation, tagging salvageable furniture, packing boxes and crates, and climbing up and down six flights of stairs because the elevators in the building were not in service.

Lessons learned
Planning minimizes the potential damage to a business during a crisis and helps gain control of the situation. In addition to developing a comprehensive crisis management plan, the following can help insulate a business:

  • Protect servers and electronic files.
  • Establish communication. Immediately after Ike, cell phones provided the only communication.
  • Remain flexible while following a general guideline such as a crisis management plan. Many curves and unforeseen obstacles will be thrown your way. For example, most of the city of Houston was without power; telephone lines were out; and other infrastructure had problems, such as traffic lights and water.


Thanks to our crisis management plan and the incredible teamwork and resiliency of our staff, it’s now business as usual post-Ike as LJA continues to serve its clients and fulfill its mission statement: "To establish LJA in our chosen disciplines as the premier engineering firm in Texas by providing high quality, innovative, and cost-effective services to our clients."


Calvin T. Ladner, P.E., is president and CEO of LJA Engineering & Surveying, Inc. He can be contacted at cladner@ljaengineering.com.


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