A hurricane of enormous proportions passed through the Tampa Bay area earlier this month. Hurricane Irma threatened to hit us directly as a dangerous and potentially deadly Category 4.
The Tampa Bay area doesn’t get hit very often by hurricanes. The city faces the Gulf to the west, and the prevailing east-to-west trade winds at this latitude make it uncommon for a storm to hit us directly. In fact, we haven’t had a major hurricane hit us since 1946, when a Category 1 known as the Tampa Bay Hurricane, made a direct hit here.
Many businesses, including ours, didn’t have firmly established plans in place on how to handle a natural disaster of this size. We let our culture—the values that define us as a company—guide many of our decisions through the storm.
A stressful, unpredictable, balancing act.
As a homeowner, I watched the approaching storm carefully. As a business owner, even more so. Closing a business in preparation for a hurricane is always a gamble—there is a potential loss of revenue, and if damage occurs, that loss of revenue may be quite severe. FEMA estimates that 40 percent of businesses do not reopen after a disaster.
For my partners and I, the question of whether to close the office was a three-parter:
- What do we need to do to prepare our families?
- What do our employees need to do to prepare their families?
- How can we ensure Big Sea will survive this storm?
All of this made for a very stressful and unpredictable week. We simultaneously tried to prepare for total destruction of our homes and community, and continue to work as normal. We were stressed, tired, and emotionally drained. For an entire week, we struggled, with our stomachs in knots, not knowing what to expect come Sunday.
But we made one decision early, and that decision was based on the culture of our agency. We gave folks the option to work or not, to work from home when they needed to, or to be in the office if they preferred.
Many of our team evacuated early, driving or flying as far as was feasible. Others stayed behind, boarding up windows and doors at their homes. Some of us welcomed the respite that comes with doing work we love; others were singularly focused on preparing their families and homes for the storm.
Everyone deals with their fear and uncertainty in different ways; we knew if we allowed our team to make decisions for themselves, they would make the right ones. We’re all adults here, and nobody shirked work for a vacation while a major hurricane loomed off the coast.
As the weekend approached and our team made preparations to hunker down or evacuate, I watched as they also communicated their availability with clients, rescheduled projects when needed and fast-tracked others, and ultimately got everything nailed down before the storm hit.
They also pitched in and helped each other. Which stores were still selling water, which gas stations still had gas? Homes were opened. Work was shared. I couldn’t have been prouder of their efforts.
We took shelter, and offered it.
At first, many of us in St. Petersburg went home and boarded up our windows, confident we would ride out the storm at home. But, as Irma drew closer and the evacuations became mandatory, we reconsidered.
My partners and I quickly made a decision: Our office, a literal concrete fortress, would be opened as a shelter for employees and their friends and family. This was not an entirely selfless act; we also needed a safe haven for our own loved ones.
We provided shelter to 26 humans, 8 dogs, 11 cats, 2 guinea pigs and a rabbit. We turned no one away.
Time to hunker down.
We are a close-knit team, and that has never been more evident than during Irma’s reign over the state. Our Slack channels and Zello handle kept us informed of each other’s situations. We shared news, and we shared our plans—to evacuate or to ride it out. And we shared positivity, laughs, anxiety and reassurance. We came together as a team, even though we were far apart.
Here at the office-turned-shelter, we were prepared for the worst. Everyone who came brought coolers with the contents of their refrigerators. Jugs of water. Flashlights, lanterns, and airbeds. We had kennels and cribs and card games.
We were ready.
As the winds picked up and the rain battered the windows, we continued to work as the collaborative, get-shit-done group that has made our agency successful. Folks took turns taking the dogs out, keeping the kids entertained (which involved a lot of rechargeable batteries for tablets), and making food and mixing drinks for the grown-ups.
We lived as one big, weird family for almost 24 hours.
The office, as we had predicted, was strong. It was almost silent inside as the storm intensified throughout the night. It was eery—a quiet calm that put us at ease.
In the morning, we woke to sunny skies, and our power still on. We’d ridden through the entire storm with WIFI and cold AC which, it turns out, was an anomaly for our area. Almost everyone had lost power throughout the night.
We wandered out to assess damage nearby, packed up our belongings, and put the office back together.
Returning to (what we call) normal.
In those first days after Irma’s trek through our city, we had employees who had to travel back from their evacuation spots, and others who needed to start the long, arduous process of cleaning up and dealing with homeowner insurance claims. Some schools remained closed due to the lack of power, which meant parents on our team had kiddos in tow through all of it.
We let our team know: Return when you are ready. They’d already proven that they could balance their own lives and their duties as employees. And they did so again.
As soon as the office was swept clean of kitty litter and all the cribs and cages had been put away, we opened back up. Employees without power joined us for WIFI and cold AC, and to check in with clients and get some work done. We invited friends and colleagues in the area to do the same.
We’ve had a lot of people reaching out to say how wonderful it is that we’ve offered so much to our employees and the community throughout this time, and while I appreciate the kind words, I don’t know that there was another option.
Compassion, empathy, patience, community, and teamwork—especially in times of crisis and uncertainty—those are the shared values upon which we built this company.
I’ve seen the very best in people throughout the past few weeks, in restaurant owners offering the last of their food and alcohol, or free coffee. In neighbors helping each other remove trees and debris from their yards. In small businesses offering charging stations and clean water. In humans sharing their scarce resources and spaces with others.
This is what we do, when we need to do it. I hope a little bit of this come-togetherness sticks around for a while. I know it will at our agency. It is part of who we are.