Tornado safety: 4 essential planning tips

From stashing a safety kit to creating a business continuity plan, here’s how garden centers can prepare for when dangerous weather strikes.

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As North America leaps into spring, it’s easy to look forward to the longer days and getting back into the garden. However, with spring also comes new weather patterns — as the saying goes, “April showers bring May flowers” — and these changes can be severe. In certain parts of the Midwest, spring often ushers in the return of tornado season, and these twisters can wreak untold havoc. Zach Bruce, safety services manager at Hortica, shares four vital tips garden center employees should know in the event of a natural disaster.

1. Plan

“No matter what the disaster might be, businesses with the best outcomes have an emergency action plan in place,” Bruce says. He recommends the guidelines used by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and IGC owners and managers can head to for essential preparedness tips.

“The site covers many of the possible natural disasters and has excellent resources for businesses to identify their risks, develop their plans, and bring the plans to life,” Bruce says. 

It’s also important for businesses to have systems in place when it comes to notifying employees or customers when emergencies strike, as well as designated areas of refuge or evacuation. If you don’t have a tornado safe room or shelter, consult with a professional engineer to determine the best available refuge area at your facility.     

Protecting life is the most important component of the plan. Make sure you can account for everyone at the garden center, whether it’s employees or customers. Managers should keep in mind that people with disabilities or other barriers to access may require assistance during an emergency, so be sure to create inclusive procedures for everyone in your plan.

2. Training exercises/drill programs

“It's great to have a plan in place, but if all you're doing is developing a plan and storing it away in a binder that’s collecting dust, it's not doing the business any good,” Bruce says.

Once a plan is in place, it’s a good idea to annually review the plan on site. Make sure your plan includes training staff, and performing routine emergency exercises and drills. While it can be hard to conduct these drills during peak season, he suggests practicing them during a slower time of the year. Even if customers are in the store, it’s good practice in case staff members are responsible for customers’ safety in the future.

“If you don't practice what your emergency plans are, the likelihood of everybody doing what they're supposed to during an emergency is not all that likely,” Bruce says.

Once the drill is complete, managers should review the plans with a follow-up session: Focus on what went well, what didn't and improvements for the next drill/emergency.

3. Survival kit

Have a survival kit on hand, which is especially useful in the event people are sheltering in place, he says. Include items like water, food, first aid kit, a radio and spare cell phone batteries, to name just a few. He suggests contacting your business’ insurance carrier, as they may be able to provide a survival kit checklist, as well as checking in to see if they have a safety services team that can help businesses develop their plans.

He also recommends inspecting the survival kit monthly. Make sure it’s properly stocked, the batteries are charged, and it’s located where it’s supposed to be. The last thing you want to discover during an emergency, is your survival kit is missing or is not ready.

4. Business continuity plan

Finally, the garden center owner should have a business continuity plan in place if partial or total facility loss occurs. While protection of life is the No. 1 thing to focus on during the emergency, what comes after is also important. “Many businesses fall short in this planning aspect, which could jeopardize the future of your company,” Bruce says. In fact, according to FEMA, 75% of businesses without continuity plans fail within three years following a major disaster.

However, it’s not a “one size fits all” deal. These plans must be tailored and highly individualized to each IGC, so owners should outline and troubleshoot planning specifics as soon as possible. FEMA has a checklist that business owners can utilize in their planning here. Business owners should be sure to contact their insurance company to assist with creating a plan, and some important jumping-off points should include:

  • How are you going to get back into business?
  • How are you going to do business?
  • How are you going to try to keep as many customers as you can when you have to rebuild or recover?
  • Is there another facility you can temporarily move into?
  • Can you get temporary structures to replace damaged ones?

“No matter where you are, you really have to look at the potential risks and hazards of natural disasters. Put a plan in place so when an emergency happens, you’re prepared for it,” Bruce concludes.

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Zach Bruce is the safety services manager for Hortica. For over 16 years, Zach has enjoyed helping horticultural businesses safely serve their customers and employees.

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