Preparation & Response to Natural Disasters

Business Survival Based on Good Planning & Communication

In September 2017, the nation watched as Hurricane Irma hurtled toward the Florida coast with Category 5 intensity. Most importantly, people were concerned about how the residents would hold up against the fierce storms. At the same time, any company doing business with Florida wondered what the impact would be.

Fortunately, by the time Irma made landfall, the hurricane had decreased to Category 3. Some areas were missed by the most severe winds and damage, but others experienced the full destructive force. When the sun returned to the skies several days later, many buildings had extensive damage and others were a total loss.

The impacts were scattered but widespread for Florida’s extensive green industry, which generates more than $21.08 billion in annual sales and directly employs nearly a quarter of a million people. Many factors influenced the ability of each company to weather the storm, continue operations or get back up and running sooner than later.

“We are in a market that provides perishable products, not like housing widgets that have block walls to protect them,” said Morning Dew Tropical Plants Buyer Robbin Avery. “You are really open to mother nature and all the issues around it. In our case, what we experienced is that the majority of our customers were very understanding, and worked with us to substitute specific plant varieties with alternatives, or waited until products were available.”

Staying Informed & Finding Alternatives

Morning Dew Tropical Plants is a wholesale plant brokerage firm, with a main office in Delray Beach and three satellite sales offices in other parts of Florida. The company buys in large volume from 150 suppliers spread around the state and ships throughout North America.

After the 2017 hurricane, Morning Dew had to take stock of which growers still had plants readily available and which ones needed time to come back on line as well as how much time was necessary. Some companies were closed down for up to five months, not shipping anything, simply doing repairs and starting new crops.

“Some refused to sell for a while, because their plant quality was not as high as their usual standards,” Avery said. “If a grower recovered their irrigation and shade quickly, they had a good chance of maintaining the crops left after the hurricane.”

Labor was a big issue. Many laborers left Florida to get away from the storm or went down to the hardest hit Florida Keys to work on the cleanup efforts there. Of course, some staff were unavailable as they were dealing with damage to their homes and neighborhoods. The companies that either planned for these labor issues with backup staffing or were able to get workers back more quickly were able to start supplying plants first.

“You never know what the emergency is going to be or when a natural disaster may strike. Having a good line of communication is a basic necessity,” she said. “Communication was the biggest positive we had with our growers. We were able to keep in communication with them to know when they were back on track and their crops were ready. We helped customers find what was available and we made it through together.”

Morning Dew supplies customers with upwards of 16,000 different products from its array of growers, and has multiple sources growing the same varieties. The company keeps its inventory system updated with what plants each grower has and the crop stages, said Kingston White, Company President.

“Part of our everyday business model is constantly visiting growers to understand their plant quality and availability. Plus, at any given moment, we may have four to five sources for each plant,” White said. “That’s how our business works year-round, and it becomes even more important when our growers are impacted by a hurricane. The day after the hurricane hit, I went down to see our growers to see the impact first hand and talk to them. Even though it was business, I was also visiting because we care about them — they’re our friends.”

Being Prepared with an Emergency Plan

During the hurricane, Morning Dew was unable to make shipments to customers when its trucking contractors were closed for a week and a half. “Our customers were very understanding. Obviously, their biggest concern was our safety. We also tried to assure everyone of what we were doing to prepare on our side,” he said.

The wholesaler has a comprehensive emergency disaster and recovery plan, developed in collaboration with its IT consultant several years ago. The Florida Nursery, Growers and Landscape Association (FNGLA) has developed and customized an emergency preparedness manual for each of its local chapters. Spearheaded by FNGLA’s Immediate Past President Ed Bravo, the manual provides helpful information for members to better prepare and assist one another following a weather emergency.

Since Morning Dew does not grow or store any products, it has no growing facilities or crops to protect. Instead, the company must ensure its office equipment and systems are operable to stay in communication, process orders, and track pickup and delivery.

“You have to plan ahead and be prepared, so if something does happen, it doesn’t cripple the business. Each year, we review and refine our plan, and we try to put it into practice at least once a year. Last year and the year before (Hurricane Matthew), we had to put it in practice for real emergencies,” White said.

In advance of both hurricanes, the staff unplugged and put computers and electronic equipment on top of desks. Everything was covered with garbage bags even though the offices are on upper floors, to avoid potential water damage if windows broke or ceilings leaked.

“If the power goes out, we have a generator that can run our server and one of our computers. We always have two internet providers, so if service goes out with one, we switch to the other. For power surges, we have battery backup for all computers,” he added. “On a daily basis, all of our files back up onsite and offsite. Last year, after we got the office ready, I took the onsite physical backups with me when I left.”

Phones were forwarded to each of the staff’s cell phones, and faxes were forwarded to an email fax service. They could work anywhere that internet access was available, whether it was individual home offices or public places.

“Even if out-of-state customers weren’t able to get ahold of growers, we feel like we remained reachable,” he said. “Our customers could continue to download order forms from our website and plug in the quantities of plants they wanted. We plugged that into our system and purchase orders went out.”

Morning Dew’s online inventory system is updated daily with “almost” real-time plant availability, and orders can be processed within five to seven minutes. If some unexpected problem would bring down that system, staff is ready to break out pen and paper to take orders and remain responsive to customers.

“If our offices would have been annihilated, we had everything ready to replicate our network and files. We would have been out for maybe a day or two to get the new server up and running and files loaded and set up. It wouldn’t be inexpensive, but also we would not be in a spot where our business would come to a standstill.”

“As an owner of a business, I need to be planning for emergencies to happen, whether it’s a lightning strike, a hacker or a hurricane. Those kinds of things will happen, so we’ve put a lot of effort and work into having contingency plans. It’s not cheap, but we have to do that because we care about our clients, our business and our employees,” he concluded.

A Helping Hand in the Aftermath

 As Morning Dew Tropical Plants President Kingston White was visiting growers after the hurricane, he stood talking among the ruins at one company where almost 90 percent of the crops were wiped out and all of the shade houses were destroyed. The owner and a colleague noted how fortunate Morning Dew was. By not having inventory, the wholesaler was not experiencing loss in the same way as the growers had.

“I wanted to do something for those impacted more than others,” White recalled.

That realization led his company to a fundraising effort that brought in more than $21,000 in donations from association members, customers, and even competitors. Within a month after the hurricane hit, even before other types of disaster relief funding came from the state or federal governments, 100 percent of the donations from the fundraising campaign went to eight growers that had been impacted the most and applied for relief with verified invoices for rebuilding efforts. One grower had an invoice for more than $13,000 just for shade cloth.

“What really impressed me is how much the industry came together and we were able to raise funds. There was an incredible outpouring and uniting of people in the industry to make a difference,” he said. “One grower who was a recipient said it was so unexpected to get that check. It could have been for $5 and it still would have been significant. Just the fact that he received a check from his peers let his company staff know they were not in this alone and people do care.”

Green Plants for Green Buildings, a nonprofit with a mission of communicating the diverse benefits of nature in the built environment, started a similar fundraising campaign for green businesses impacted by Hurricane Irma. White, who sits on the nonprofit’s board, was able to help direct a portion of those funds to the same recipients, multiplying the benefits for them.

“I thought it was meaningful for our whole team. It showed us how this industry has the best people in the world, willing to give the shirts off their backs to help each other,” he said.