So. Cal fires: business as unusual

October 24th, 2007 by Julie Ferguson

According to NBC, the southern California fires represent the single largest movement of Americans since the civil war. Nearly one million people were evacuated, including hospitals, nursing homes, and prisons. A state of emergency was declared in 7 counties. As of this morning, 640 square miles had burned. According to preliminary estimates by the Insurance Information Institute, insured losses are expected to exceed $500 million. News reports state that overall costs are expected to be measured in billions. Historically, the most expensive California fire was the 1991 Oakland Hills fire.
The media focus has been on the fire itself, the massive evacuation, and the loss of homes, but the impact of the fire on local businesses has also been enormous. In addition to property damage and temporary business interruption for many, nearly all employers will cope with an increase in post-disaster stress in their work force. Destruction of homes will cause disruption, stress, and hardship for thousands of employees.
From a business perspective, the enormity of events is partially depicted by the experience of local post offices, 25 of which were closed yesterday. While mail might be delivered through rain, sleet and snow, fire posed a more formidable obstacle. USPS was unable to deliver mail to 478,000 homes and business in evacuated neighborhoods.
Massive evacuations, many mandatory, shut down scores of businesses. For some employers that have roles in responding to emergencies, such as hospitals, utilities, and public safety and infrastructure concerns, the need for employees intensifies during emergencies. At the same time, employees who are asked to work longer hours are often caught between the double bind of work responsibilities and caring for family needs.
Many businesses in non-essential sectors such as the technology industry simply closed in deference to their employees’ family needs and in response to official requests to keep nonessential persons off the roads. According to NPR, Qualcomm, PETCO and Jack in the Box — along with many of the region’s major employers — all pared down their staffs. Some large employers communicated with employees on their websites. NASSCO General Dynamics posted notices of shift cancellations due to air quality, the San Diego Zoo offered a page of emergency employee information, including work status and payroll notices, and SHARP Heath care noted the the rising demand for services and reminded employees of available day care services.
Health & safety concerns
Despite the scope of the fires, loss of life has been minimal, in no small part due to the reverse 911 emergency notification system and the efforts of heroic firefighters and rescue workers. Unsurprisingly, those battling the blaze are bearing the brunt of the injuries during the fire. CNN reports that at least 70 people have been injured, including 34 firefighters. The Scripps hospital website says that their hospitals and urgent-care facilities have treated 166 patients with fire-related injuries or conditions, including respiratory distress, fall-related injuries, chest pain, hypertension, sinus infections, minor burns and anxiety. Scripps offers a page of respiratory health advice during wildfires.
In the coming days, employers should be prepared to deal with stress reactions among employees. According to Mental Health America, some common reactions to disasters include:

  • Disbelief and shock
  • Disorientation; difficulty making decisions or concentrating
  • Apathy and emotional numbing
  • Nightmares and reoccurring thoughts about the event
  • Irritability and anger
  • Sadness and depression
  • Feeling powerless
  • Changes in eating patterns; loss of appetite or overeating
  • Crying for “no apparent reason
  • Headaches, back pains and stomach problems
  • Increased use of alcohol and drugs

For ongoing information on insurance-related matters:
Insurance information Network of California
California Department of Insurance
For fire-related and relief news:
Web-technologies have offered a rich new source for communications. The article “Using social media services to track the California fires” offers an overview of the way these technologies have been harnessed to provide real time updates and communications. Individual bloggers have been supplementing more traditional news sources. Here are a few interesting sources:
Google map -a notated with evacuation areas, fire updates, and more
@KPBS – Twitter feed from KPBS
@nateritter – Twitter feed from a local
SignOnSanDiego Forums – from the San Diego Union Tribune