According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), almost forty percent of the small businesses in the United States never reopen after suffering a major natural disaster. If you own a small or mid-sized business in Florida, keep reading. You’ll learn some helpful legal facts about natural disasters, and you’ll also learn where to get the specific legal advice you may need.

The effects of a hurricane’s damage to local businesses can linger for as long as two or three years after the storm. Some businesses have to close for days or even weeks, with a consequent revenue loss that may never be recovered. Few businesses can shut down for that length of time and expect to survive. And even if your business survived Hurricane Irma, it may still be at risk – especially if your business does not have a written continuity and disaster plan in place.

If you’ve been in Florida for the summer of 2017, you know without any doubt that hurricanes are a substantial threat to our state and its businesses. With Hurricane Irma so recently behind us, Florida business owners can now make a more realistic assessment of their risks than they might have made just six months ago. As hurricane season winds down, it’s a good time to determine where your business now stands and what kinds of natural disaster risks it faces in the future.

HOW DID HURRICANE IRMA IMPACT FLORIDA BUSINESSES?

Governor Rick Scott declared a state of emergency in all 67 counties as Hurricane Irma approached in September. Agriculture in Florida was devastated; Irma destroyed $2.6 billion worth of Florida’s crops. Business owners are still totaling other damages, and the state’s congressional delegation is asking for $27 billion in hurricane assistance. The Orlando Sentinel reports that 27,000 unemployment claims have been filed in Florida as a result of the hurricane.

Mark Wilson, speaking for the Florida Chamber of Commerce, says that a natural disaster can chill an economy for months, that businesses relocate because of disasters, and that tourists change their plans due to disasters. Natural disasters can freeze investment and capital venture projects. Florida also faces a shortage of skilled laborers like carpenters and plumbers, so a full month after Irma, there is still a shortage of contractors available to repair homes and businesses.

WHY WASN’T THE DAMAGE FROM IRMA EVEN WORSE?

The good news is that most properties and buildings in Florida escaped with little or no structural damage. Building code changes after Hurricane Andrew in 1992 are credited by many observers with keeping a bad storm from being much worse. New construction in Miami-Dade County, for example, must be built to withstand Category 5 hurricane force winds.

Another storm like Irma may not strike Florida soon – maybe not for years – but our big summer thunderstorms do considerable damage to businesses and homes here every year. Also, in some parts of the state, wildfires are now a seasonal threat every spring. That makes winter the perfect season to prepare for the types of natural disasters most common to Florida and most likely to impact your business.

WHAT SHOULD A COMPANY’S CONTINUITY PLAN ADDRESS?

A small or mid-sized business must have a continuity and disaster plan in writing. It’s imperative. Obviously, if your business is struck by a giant meteor, there won’t be much you can do, but in the face of hurricanes, tornadoes, and fires, a disaster plan will substantially increase a company’s chances of surviving. While every company’s plan will be different, these are the general items that a Florida company’s continuity and disaster plan must address:

Protection of business records: Any data that’s kept exclusively on a hard drive is at risk. A sudden fire or explosion may not give you time to back up or save important records and files. Consider keeping your business records backed up “in the cloud.” Some of those records will be needed after a disaster for insurance claims and/or loan applications.

Communicate clearly everyone involved: During and after a natural disaster, be sure that you are communicating clearly with your customers or clients and with vendors and employees. Let employees know how payroll and leave will be affected, and let customers know when they can expect products or services as usual.

Determine how continuity will be implemented: Identify the operations essential to your business and identify the employees who will conduct those operations. Some employees may require additional disaster-related training. Proper training in advance can keep some businesses up, running, and even profitable through storms like Hurricane Irma.

Conduct a risk analysis: A business owner will want to consider every potential hazard. Fires, explosions, tornadoes, and hurricanes can happen anywhere in Florida, and flooding isn’t unusual in many Florida locations. Human threats – robbery, vandalism, and in today’s world, gun violence – must also be considered.

Make sure that your employees are prepared: If you have more than three or four employees, it’s not a bad idea to schedule an occasional fire drill – the kind they had back in grade school. A good plan can’t help if no one can execute it. Meet routinely with your employees to ensure that they know – and remember – what to do when disaster strikes.

Carry sufficient liability insurance: Hurricanes and other natural disasters always increase the risk of accidents and injuries caused by negligence. Purchase adequate liability insurance for your business from someone you trust, and read every detail of the policy. If you aren’t sure about a policy’s terms, seek your business lawyer’s advice.

Learn more: The American Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provide helpful, detailed emergency planning information to business owners. The American Red Cross – or your local fire department – can provide disaster, first aid, and CPR training to your employees. Check into what’s available in your vicinity.

CAN AN EXPERIENCED CENTRAL FLORIDA BUSINESS ATTORNEY HELP?

Central Florida business attorney Melody Lankford summarizes several important suggestions for business owners: “It is important that insurance policies remain current and that the business is properly insured. I remind my clients to notify their insurance carriers whenever an investment is made in equipment or technology to make sure it is covered under their policy.”

Attorney Lankford adds: “It also is important that the IT infrastructure is backed up and maintained in more than one location. Ideally, businesses should conduct a risk management analysis at least once each year to identify weaknesses and address them. This practice will help to make a natural disaster like the recent hurricanes more manageable.”

An experienced Florida business attorney can help you with whatever legal matters may arise from a hurricane or from any other natural disaster – and can help you stop a natural disaster from becoming a legal disaster for you and your business. This fall and winter, prepare your business for whatever Mother Nature may bring in 2018, and discuss your company’s legal needs with an experienced Florida business lawyer.