Small Business Disaster Planning & Defense During Natural and Man Made Disasters

Avatar Samantha Biggers  |  Updated: July 22, 2019
Small Business Disaster Planning & Defense During Natural and Man Made Disasters

If you have a small business, you may want to take some time during good times to create a defense plan for both natural and man made disasters.

A lot of people assume that during a long emergency or SHTF, a business will just be lost. That is not true. There are things you can do to preserve some of what you have and be better prepared for a variety of events.

This article is going to cover a lot of ground. While I want to talk about natural disaster preparedness, I also want to touch on situations that a business may find themselves in if there is civil unrest.

While it is impossible to plan for every little thing that may come up during a short term or extended event, thinking about it now and planning out what you can will make it easier on you when you have to make tough business decisions that can affect a lot of people.

The Waffle House Example

A Waffle House emergency food RV.

We can learn a lot about a business disaster plan by taking a closer look at how Waffle House handles it. For those that do not live in the South, it is our answer to IHOP. Waffle House diners are at a lot of the exits off major roads in the Southeast.

The Federal Emergency Management Association actually uses what they call the “Waffle House Index” to gauge how an area is doing in a disaster because the chain is so determined to stay open if at all possible.

How did a diner chain become the leading example for business disaster preparedness?

The founder of the Waffle House chain is remembered for saying that to serve the community you have to be there 24-7 so he wanted to plan a way to make that possible. The solution was having a back-up plan in the event of an emergency. If there was bad weather and people couldn’t cook, he wanted to be there to serve people a hot meal at a reasonable price.

Another motive was that they wanted to not lose money by being closed and they knew that their employees would be hurting financially if they were closed for a few days or longer.

The Unofficial FEMA Waffle House Index

Below is the index that FEMA uses to gauge disaster severity in areas with Waffle Houses.

Green- Full menu but possibly a little damage to the restaurant

Yellow-Limited menu but open. Backup power may be in use or the restaurant may be operating without electricity. Possible damage to the restaurant.

Red- No food being served. Totally closed

Fact: When Hurricane Michael hit in 2018, people were shocked that it was so bad that Waffle House actually closed 30 restaurants!

Employee Training and Chain Of Command

Waffle House employees are trained to consider the “what if?” so they know what to do if a situation comes up. There is a system in place where employees are trained to know who to call to get generators and how to get extra food supplies to restaurants safely.

They have clear instructions on how to proceed every step of the way. All employees have a key chain fob that has all the phone numbers they need to respond to a situation.

Backup power options and no power options are considered in their plan

In case of a power outage, Waffle House restaurants can operate in a limited way with no power. They also have access to generators if needed. In some cases, a Waffle House may be completely shut down but they will have a mobile Waffle House RV food truck on-site to feed people until the restaurant is repaired.

A “Hurricane Menu”

Of course, if things get bad enough and they have to use backup power, they cannot operate a regular menu. Waffle House has a menu planned out for when they are on backup power or operating in an emergency. It is easy for employees to simply put out the emergency menu and keep cooking and feeding people.

Waffle House Emergency Response RVs

It is amazing that Waffle House actually has RVs that are outfitted with satellite phones and other gear to help support restaurants and areas that are being affected by disasters. In addition, every executive-level employee is trained in how to operate a restaurant under less than ideal conditions.

Waffle House has a much more extensive emergency plan than what I have touched on in this post but I think you get the idea.

Lessons we can take home from this

  • Have a clear chain of command
  • Consider backup power to minimize loss of merchandise and so that you can stay open and making money while helping others
  • Train employees well
  • Consider what your limits are and when you should shut down and wait for an emergency to pass.

Worker Safety

  • Have a good medical kit or multiple kits depending on the size of your business. Make sure everyone knows how to locate it.
  • Train employees on how to evacuate in case of an emergency of any sort. Plan out routes to get out of the area in case of natural disaster.
  • Keep food and water at your business that everyone can eat in case they have to shelter in place or become trapped for a period of time.
  • Make sure all employees know basic CPR and first-aid

General Business Disaster Proofing

  • Have off-site backup of all important documents and accounting information
  • Don’t keep too much cash at your business location. With most business being done with debit and credit cards, this should not be a major issue for most.
  • Make sure you have adequate insurance coverage for the type of disasters most likely to strike your business.
  • Make sure employees know what to do if a situation develops. It is not fair to be angry if they do something you disagree with if you don’t give them any guidelines to go by.

Defending your business during times of civil unrest

During extended protests and riots, a lot of businesses can get damaged or destroyed. If you are considered part of a particular group, you may be targeted even if you have not voiced any opinions at all. You may have never even had a dispute with anyone in the community. During civil unrest, it may not be considered or matter at all.

Alarm Systems

I don’t think during times of unrest that alarms will do much good except to alert someone that is on site that something is wrong. Alarm systems that are connected to response centers will be useless because even if someone is monitoring, chances are law enforcement and emergency personnel are going to be far too busy to respond in a reasonable amount of time.

Even during good times, police response times are not near as fast as most of us would like. 20 minutes can seem like a lifetime when you really need help.

Questions to ask

Does your business sell a highly desirable product or a lot of necessities?

If you have a lot of desirable goods and necessities for sale, how will you handle it when people buy everything up and get upset that there is no more? Is your store at risk for major looting due to the type of items you sell?

Is your business identified as being part of a special interest that may be controversial?

During times of civil unrest if there is discord between groups, then you may be targeted regardless of your views and how much you mind your own business.

Are you in a small town, neighborhood, or in an urban area?

Is crime on the rise in your area?

It can be easy to just ignore crime until it springs forward into your life. Take a look at the crime statistics and the most common types of crimes in your area. This is telling information that can give you an idea of just what you need to look out for the most. Of course, as times get tougher, the crimes will probably get worse. During riots or civil unrest, crimes can get a lot worse quite fast.

Is there a weapons ban at your business or have you never even discussed what employees are allowed to have?


When I was 9 years old, I remember seeing the LA riots when I watched the news with my grandma on her floor model Zenith. The adults didn’t really want to explain or talk about it a lot in front of me but I understood more than they thought.

I have revisited some of the videos as an adult because you can learn a lot about defending your place by watching them. The riots went on a long time and it was amazing how some store owners managed to save their businesses from harm. Here are some of the methods used.

Non flammable objects or fences make the best barriers

Objects piled in front of entry points and glass window storefronts can prevent hurled objects from breaking glass or Molotov cocktails and other incendiaries from causing major damage as long as the barriers are not made of wood or other flammable objects. For example, shopping carts were used to block the front of grocery stores.

Fencing and wall fortification options are plentiful. Please refer to my post “Man-Made Vs. Natural Fences and Fortifications” for a few ideas.

Roof patrols

Another thing that is noticeable in videos of the 1992 LA riots is that people actually took to the roofs of their businesses and patrolled with rifles to make a point. This is a very extreme thing to have to do but considering how bad things got in LA, and what people saw happening to other businesses, I cannot say I blame them for taking a hard stand.

If this is a method you feel that you ever need to use, you should consider where you can watch things and have some cover. Walking around with a rifle on a rooftop makes you an easy target for someone else with a rifle.

It is amazing to me that more people were not shot considering how out in the open they were when defending their business.

If you have to abandon your business.

Take everything you can and stash it if it is safe to do so. It may be best to do this a little at a time if you see that things are heading in a dire direction.

Why leave a ton of stuff for looters and scavengers? If you have items at your business that will be useful during a long emergency then why not stash them at your place or create caches at a variety of locations?

At the same time, you need to consider the consequences of taking your stock and closing up shop. All situations are different. You need to consider your own unique situation and how fast events are moving.

Not staying open and moving goods off the shelf could be seen as greed or not wanting to help others.

What you see as protecting your business and safety could be seen by others as greed, hoarding, and/or lack of compassion. Think about it from the other side of the scenario for a moment.

What if Joe and Jane go to your store for essentials like food, water, etc, and find it closed even though they know that there is a lot of supplies inside that they and others in the community are in need of?

What if they look in and see that you are taking supplies out and transporting them elsewhere?

During a disaster, looting is pretty common and at least some of it happens because people are scared and no one is around in the store to sell them goods. I am not saying it is the right thing to do but not all looting happens just because people want free stuff that they don’t really need.

You can argue that they should have been more prepared, that they had plenty of warnings, etc, but the fact of the matter is that as a whole, the United States has an extremely unprepared population no matter where you look. It can be easy to assume that a lot of people are prepared if you mostly deal with like-minded people in the preparedness and survival community but the fact is that most people couldn’t make it a week on what they have in their house.

Don’t try to save too much and compromise safety.

Things are just things. You should try to keep things in perspective and avoid taking too much risk. If things are getting worse but there are still some things you want to get, consider just letting it go. Ask yourself if it is really worth it or if you are just grieving for the likely loss of the monetary value of your stock.

Safes and hidden storage

It is possible to hide some things in your business where it is highly unlikely anyone will be able to find things unless they are lucky or very determined. This can be helpful if you don’t even have a chance to defend your business because things go bad fast.

Safes that are fireproof can be helpful to have in case of arson or just an accidental fire at your business.

Window Film

This can help prevent glass from totally shattering and creating dangerous shards. It also makes it harder for smaller objects and light to moderate forces from objects. The thicker the film, the better. You can also get film that allows you to see out but others cannot see in.

Chicken wire stretched tight over windows can prevent objects from crashing through and make it harder for someone to go through a window as well. Iron grills and bars are also options but the appearance of them during good times make them not an appealing idea for many businesses. Metal pull down protectors like those you see at mall stores can be used for some types of storefronts but they will cost a considerable amount of money to purchase and install.

Defending a business is not something a single person can do well on their own. Just one person is likely not going to seem threatening enough to keep crowds away. If you have a family business than you may already know who will have your back.

Defending will only work for short-term events.

If SHTF for an extended period of time, you will not be able to hold on to what you have. You will probably have to completely shut down until times get better and your area starts to recover and commerce starts to take place again.

Defense against shoplifting during good times and bad

Shoplifting and theft are so bad in some areas that it is actually leading to stores closing their doors and no other stores feeling like it is worth it to do business there. This results in areas where you have to go a long way to get everyday items or face paying higher prices for the convenience of not traveling very far.

In some areas, higher value items or items that tend to get stolen the most are kept behind the cashier. Sometimes there is even glass in front of the cashier and store stock.

You might remember seeing pictures of old stores in the past and how you had to ask for a lot of items. You couldn’t just walk into a store and pick out everything you wanted. People sometimes just handed the storekeeper a list and then they gathered the items and then you paid for them or signed a credit receipt. In modern times we have convenience stores with bulletproof glass and alcohol, cigarettes, and condoms kept behind it.

At grocery stores and pharmacies, there are also locked cases where you have to ask for some items. These tend to be the things that cost a bit or that people are embarrassed to buy like condoms, pregnancy tests, and nicotine gum or patches. Diabetic supplies are sometimes kept in these cases as well.

In your own business, you might want to consider what items are most likely to be stolen and place them closer to the checkout or even put them behind the register.

If you do the hiring, actually take the time to check references and do background checks.

There are a lot of people that ask for people to fill out a fairly lengthy job application but never follow up on the references and sometimes they don’t even ask.

Allow me to tell a story that highlights how people will sometimes just bluff their way through a reference.

A few months back my father got a call asking for my deceased grandmother because someone that lived close by had put her down as a reference for a job. My grandmother had not even known this person that well when she was alive. Now while it is not uncommon for potential employers to keep job applications on file for 6 months or a year. I find it highly unlikely that after 5 years they still had an application for this person. This means that they put down a deceased woman’s name as a reference, assuming that no one would actually call. In a lot of cases, they are probably right. There are a lot of people that have things to hide that are able to do it quite well just because potential employers don’t take half an hour to screen a job candidate.

Brief background checks cost very little and can be done from the comfort of a laptop. I have done them on a few people before and it is a real eye-opener. At $20-$30 a month, there is no reason not to find out what types of crimes are on someone’s record that will be handling money and merchandise and interacting with customers in your community.

If someone has a crime on their record, that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve a chance. As the employer, it is up to you to decide what is acceptable. Some people have very minor offenses from decades ago that probably should be looked over if they have behaved since then.

Temporary Business Locations

There may be times when natural disasters threaten your business and you need to take action to save what you can or relocate your operations until conditions improve.

Some people may have companies and businesses that they can keep going practically anywhere, at least temporarily if they have the right equipment and power.

If you do a lot of work online or on the phone, you may be able to work from a hotel or rental during some events. My job as a writer is one example of an occupation that can be done practically anywhere.

All I need to do my job is a computer. It doesn’t have to be fancy either. I did all my writing for a year on a Chromebook and external keyboard that in total cost $130.

A cell phone with a data plan can be used as a hot spot so that you have internet and a way to communicate when regular services are not available. One thing to note is that during times like this, the cell phone towers can be overloaded so even if you have very fast 4G internet normally, it may be quite slow at times because a lot of other people are using it too.

Basically, all hotels and motels have internet services included in the cost of renting a room or suite so you can easily set up an office if needed. Some people may only be able to carry out minimal work-related duties at a time like this but it may still be helpful in reducing lost revenue and customers.

Do you have a plan in place for your business? Are you in management at a larger company that doesn’t take preparedness seriously? Have you attempted to bring up the subject of disaster planning at your workplace?

It would be interesting to hear from anyone that has been in a situation where their workplace or business was in danger from natural or man-made disasters. What did you do to get through? What were the biggest challenges you and your co-workers faced?

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2 Responses to “Small Business Disaster Planning & Defense During Natural and Man Made Disasters”

  1. riots and mobs are government problems. they will be made more severe by the gun control that people who think a crisis is no room service. the ability to defend will turn away all but the largest mobs or the desperate. removing the ability to defend would embolden these people. Depending upon police or military is foolish because they cant be everywhere. our founding fathers knew this and it is the reason for the qualifier starting our second amendment . and well regulated does not mean government regulation. it means well practiced with a firearm that you own. it means working with others as a well drilled team able to take direction from whoever is in command. thus planning that will get the multitude back to a functioning civilization and as quickly as possible is the best survival plan. While basics are needed to survive in the short run supplies will run out and when they do fighting will start. a basic government with laws and enforcement must be secured as quickly as possible. the ability to get food from producers and waste removed to limit sickness. I have seen many plans but any one plan cant fit every situation. the problem is that our cities are so large. how can we hope to produce , survive or eventually thrive without a plan that leaders can follow knowing they will be honored by the next community. because no plan is absolute I need to think on this and talk with others and see if it is possible————-Grampa

  2. Excellent article. I happen to work in records management. While your article addressed how to get by in the short run, knock on wood, at some point the crisis will be over. If a business owner hopes to be able to re-open or start over they will need their records! Your ability to secure a bank loan, file insurance claims, reconnect with clients, call your employees back in, and pick up where you left off with your work all depend on the ability to access your records! Business owners should make sure, when times are good, that they regularly back up essential work and have back up copies of important documents. Offsite or cloud-based storage are the best options.

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