I was notified by a friend of mine in southern Maryland to a rather precarious situation that I thought was interesting. The water utility company had to repair a 54” main water line supplying the very populated area of portions of Prince George’s County and was warning more than 100,000 residents and local businesses they would be without water for three to five days during a hot July week. Needless to say, I bet you can’t find a bottle or jug of water in any store anywhere near there right now. In thinking about this situation, I see several areas of concern.
First of all, in the 90 degree heat of July there, dehydration can set in quickly depending on age, size, and activity levels. The increased strain on emergency services I would imagine would be significant. Some articles mentioned they planned on handing out emergency water but in these cases there just never is enough. The health impact of an outage is significant. When speaking with groups about home or personal preparedness I always emphasize the need for water, and even in my own family preparedness actions I find that having enough water is always a great challenge. I think it’s a solid assumption that most people in that area do not have any emergency water supply and thus would be reliant on the provided emergency water.
Looking at this from a business continuity perspective, I see many challenges to businesses that would need to be planned for and considered. For starters, does your business rely on a good water supply for sanitation or other purposes (e.g. restaurants, healthcare, barbers and hair salons, etc.)? If so, can your business function without water just to run your critical functions - probably not. Even if you are not in that situation, what business with employees can function without water for restrooms and hand washing for 3-5 days? I can’t think of any. Not to mention the non-life threatening discomforts of employees hygiene or (gasp) the utter lack of coffee. Even with a few days’ notice, how could businesses in the area properly prepare, especially small businesses that rely on day to day customers to survive? And closing any business for 3-5 days can be significant to catastrophic depending on the business. Now consider if there was no advanced notice?
Put your business in this situation – would you be ready to deal with this? Would you have plans in place to have employees work from alternate locations or telework? Does your business have alternatives to just closing shop while you wait for the water to be restored? What would you do if the main broke in the middle of a Monday night and you were told water would be out for an entire week? Looking at these concerns makes you realize that what is usually assumed to be a minor problem (such as water line repairs) can become a significant business disruption very quickly. The good news is if you have a strong business continuity plan and a good communication system with your employees you may still be able to treat this kind of a situation as an annoyance rather than a catastrophe.