When disaster strikes, it pays to be prepared — by having emergency supplies at the ready as well as a documentation system in place. Orlando, Fla., learned that lesson the hard way, after encountering three back-to-back storms in 2004.

"We learned a lot, and FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) learned a lot from us,” says Joseph Hinley, assistant division manager for fleet and facilities. Since then, we've come up with disaster preparedness plans."

In the midst of the storms, Orlando's facilities team moved quickly, Jerry Steed, facilities manager, recalls. At one point the roof fell in at the Emergency Operations Center and wind got under the flashing and started pulling it like a kite. The building houses the city's 911 center, so as rain got into the building and up to 4 inches of water started flooding out, the facilities team had to quickly lift up the equipment to preserve computers.

Repairs and stopgap measures cost time and money. If cities don't document and photograph damage and repair work during the crucial recovery period, they can later run into trouble when filing claims for reimbursements from FEMA and insurance companies, Hinley and Steed caution.

"Today we are still being audited, and records are being requested to reconcile FEMA reimbursements from 2004," Hinley says.

"That's why it's important to photograph and notate as much as you can [while you're dealing with damage], and note any new [FEMA] regulations," Steed says.

Having learned from the reconciliation process, Orlando now is better prepared to handle emergencies, as well as to document work. The city has developed a comprehensive disaster preparedness plan that includes an emergency bunker, emergency contacts, standard operating procedures and financial tracking.

"We've come up with a database that mirrors FEMA's coding system for expenses," Hinley says. During a storm, Hinley's staff can use emergency procurement credit cards to purchase supplies. When the city receives the credit card statements for these cards, Orlando can mark transactions to match FEMA's coding, and that system is linked to another application so that the city can easily print out documents that are filed with FEMA.

"Prior to 2004, everything was done manually, and [staff] literally sat for hours and hours looking up FEMA codes and calculating people's time. When it comes to during a disaster, you have to keep things separated that are related to the storms and not related to the storms if you want to get reimbursed. If you're addressing an issue that could have occurred on any other day, then you need to keep the [transaction] separated," Hinley says.

In addition to better financial record keeping, the emergency preparedness plan requires the city to:

  • Prioritize keeping fire and emergency personnel fleets running;
  • Know which staff members are available for 24-7 work;
  • Having cash on-hand to pay for supplies;
  • Have emergency supplies such as first aid kits, tarps, batteries, generators housed in different buildings throughout the city;
  • Be able to maintain employee payroll;
  • Have access to an emergency bunker;
  • Take photographs of damage with smart phones to improve documentation.
  • Rely on fuel contracts that stipulate city trucks will be a priority during a crisis, so that staff can get equipment out into the city to remedy problems.
  • Coordinate with other businesses in the region;
  • Practice what to do in an emergency.

"The biggest thing I stress to city managers who haven't gone through a disaster like we have is to have emergency guidelines in place, constantly revisit the plan and train staff what to do 96 hours before a storm, 72 hours out, and so forth," Hinley says. "You never really know whether you’re ready to face a disaster until you face one. But if you have a plan, do your training, conduct drills, and know what to expect, then at least you have the foresight of how to proceed, instead of flying by the seat of your pants."