When Hurricane Ike blew through the southern coast of Texas, hitting cities such as Galveston and Houston on Sept. 12, it brought destruction and displacement, but it wasn't able to dissolve something perhaps even more significant - community.
"It's times like these we see the true spirit of Houston," said Kenneth Guidry, president and director of PKF Texas in Houston. "All of our clients, our entire community is dealing with this. I think it's a delicate balance between getting back onboard, getting back to business, which helps people return to some normalcy, but at the same time, appreciating that people's lives are not normal."
When Ike arrived in Texas, the winds - blowing upwards of 80 miles per hour - destroyed homes and businesses and disrupted everyday life.
Of the three Houston-based firms that Accounting Today talked with, all said that they were as prepared as possible for the storm, drawing from disaster recovery plans, listening to weather advisories, moving valuables and important documents away from windows and into hallways, and sending their employees home early to take care of personal matters.
"The impact that this is having on our folks is of the utmost concern to me," said Wayne McConnell, managing partner of McConnell Jones Lanier & Murphy, a firm located in the Galleria area of Houston. "We stayed in constant contact with our clients and we sent out e-mails letting them know that our office is back up to speed, business is moving along as usual and there wasn't damage to any of their files."
McConnell's office was closed for two days and experienced water damage on desks and credenzas. Debris was found in landscaped areas and trees with broken limbs were uprooted around their building's complex.
Meanwhile, McConnell said that his greatest concern is the morale of employees who not only were left without power at their homes, but who were also grappling with a lack of childcare and school closings due to power outages in the city. Several major traffic lights were out of service, causing traffic accidents, and no electricity meant no air conditioning, forcing people to use generators - which, according to McConnell, often sound like a "turbo-charged lawn mower" - except one that runs all night.
For PKF Texas, also located in the Galleria, the hurricane was a reminder of 2001, when Tropical Storm Allison displaced the firm for six weeks.
"We are feeling pretty good and fortunate that we are in our office and up and running," said Guidry, who at the time of the interview did not have power at his own home. "This experience reminds us that each situation is a little different, and while we prepared everyone for the possibilities, the personal preparedness as well as the office preparedness, what I don't think any disaster recovery plan could have anticipated is that the storm left 85 percent of the city without power. If you don't have electrical power, then you will be severely impacted."
To add to the stress, the firms were also dealing with the looming Sept. 15 corporate tax filing deadline, prior to the announcement that the Internal Revenue Service would extend the deadline to Jan. 5, 2009, for those communities impacted by the hurricane. In an effort to keep communication flowing, an e-mail blast was sent out to clients and other community members, according to Karen Love, PKF Texas' director of practice growth.
"We had been the recipient of some embarrassing e-mails from people who had used this as a solicitive opportunity," Love said. "We did not want to appear that way, so we combined our thoughts together with an IRS update. ... We used it as a way to connect with our clients and ease their worries on deadlines. We did not want to send out multiple e-mails and solicit for business that we could help with insurance claims, etc. We received e-mails of that nature and they just turned your stomach."
Since returning to its office on the Tuesday after the storm, PKF Texas was able to lend extra office space to clients who were displaced, offering up direct-dial phone numbers and Internet access. Annual fundraising efforts were redirected to those within the firm who needed immediate help. Guidry also noted that a toll-free number was set up for access to periodic updates.
THE REAL DEAL
"This time, the flooding was not as severe, but the wind damage is almost indescribable," said Rick Stein, chief executive of UHY Advisors, noting that, though he's experienced hurricane warnings and flooding before, he knew this storm was the real deal.
Stein said that because the storm had been predicted for days, his firm, too, had the chance to prepare its offices. Important belongings and documents were moved to the hallways, away from windows, employees were allowed to leave before the end of the day, and the firm's phone tree was put into effect.
With approximately 500 employees at its Houston location, UHY activated its "teams" of people, each headed by a "captain." Teams were then kept abreast of any important communications. A toll-free number was also set up for updates about the storm and employees were asked to let management know of their evacuation plans - if they needed to travel from their home to a nearby city.
"This couldn't have been a worse weekend to have this happen because [of] the corporate tax filing deadline, and typically the Friday, Saturday and Sunday before is the busiest three days of the year," Stein said, adding that those staff who had access to the Internet could still work on client files, though not through the firm's network. "Our IT people made sure we had access to client files even if we were going to be away from the office for an extended period of time. That was very helpful."
On Sunday, when the firm's electricity was turned back on, the building's damage was assessed and a game plan was communicated to employees. On the Monday after the storm, 80 out of their 500 employees returned to work. "We told everybody that our No. 1 priority, of course, was the safety of everybody's family," Stein said. "We told people because the building would be operating, if somebody had the ability and wanted to go to work, particularly because we had air conditioning and computer service, they were allowed."
UHY solved the childcare issue by transforming a large training room into a hangout space for employees' children and spouses. The room offered games, a Wii video game system and Internet access. Teenagers offered to babysit, since they were out of school.
The firm was able to find a restaurant to cater hot lunches at the firm's expense for employees and their families for the week, and alerted people as to which gas stations in the area were open, as lines were up to two hours' long. And since UHY occupies multiple floors in its building, it made conference rooms available to displaced clients and community members.
The firm created a skeleton disaster recovery plan approximately three years ago, and every year in June - at the beginning of hurricane season - the plan is brushed off and updated. One resource that both Guidry and Stein said could have been helpful during the crisis is the ability to send mass text messages, since people were able to receive them better than by voicemail.
"This was the mother of all storms as far as we're concerned," Stein said. "The takeaway I have, besides the cooperation we've had from our people, is the appreciation that our employees have shown, saying, 'Gosh, this is a great place to work, you all have reached out, you all have been considerate' - as management, it's the best feeling in the world."
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