Postcards

How the power players do it - by Fortune senior editor at large Patricia Sellers

Prepping for the next storm: An entrepreneur's advice

November 6, 2012: 8:15 AM ET

Catherine Hooper   Credit: Elisabeth Smolarz

Catherine Hooper is one of the more intriguing entrepreneurs I've met recently. Her startup, Black Umbrella, provides services to help people prepare for floods, hurricanes, nuclear war and pretty much any other disaster we might fear. Hooper knows disasters: She is the fiance of Andrew Madoff, Bernie Madoff's son whose career collapsed when his dad (who was his employer) was discovered to be the world's greatest Ponzi schemer. I profiled Hooper in Fortune last March. Last week, when Sandy blew up the East Coast, I emailed her and asked if she learned anything from the storm. She did. Sandy convinced Hooper that we're confronting a new normal and we had better be prepare for it.

Prepping for the next storm: An entrepreneur's advice by Catherine Hooper, founder and President, Black Umbrella

For most East Coast residents, life officially returned to normal on Monday.  Children went back to school. Commuters returned to work, using mass transit. Many homeowners breathed sighs of relief at having weathered Superstorm Sandy. But as a sense of normalcy returns, questions abound about whether emergencies of this magnitude are part of "the new normal."

Based on science, I believe that they are. According to the United Nations, half of the 10 deadliest disasters between 1975 and 2008 occurred after 2002. Big storms are on the rise. And preparing for potential catastrophes is part the new normal.

That said, the most important question is: What's the best way to prepare?

For a lot of Americans, the answer is to buy stuff. When we lost power in my downtown apartment last Monday night, I was very happy to have bought a Duracell Powerpack 600 for $154 on Amazon.com (AMZN). Normally, I keep this 32-pound emergency power source in the car, but it works just as well at home to keep mobile phones, iPads, and computers charged.

On the cheaper end, my most useful purchase turned out to be the WaterBob, a $30 bathtub liner that safely stores 100 gallons of water.  It even has a pump to make getting the water out for drinking, bathing, and sanitation very simple.

Meanwhile, my SureFire E2D executive defender flashlight lit my way up 22 flights of stairs (and  would have come in handy if I had run into unwanted company).

But the answer to how we can best prepare for uncertainty is about more than the tools.  As an emergency preparedness professional, I frequently talk about the importance of tactics. As I used them during the storm (or didn't, to my detriment), I became aware of what steps are most useful to our survival and comfort.

The smartest thing I managed to do: Think ahead as much as possible. On Monday morning, I got the car out of my garage, filled it with gas, and parked it on the street near my building.  I stocked the house with non-perishable food. I took out all of the garbage. And I downloaded several new kids' movies to my iPad.

When we woke on Tuesday morning to the power still on the blink, I made coffee with my generator, flushed the toilets with water from the WaterBob, and called a hotel chain to book a room in New York north of the newly christened SoPo ("South of Power").

And I made my first major mistake. I took a room for around $200 a night for two nights, assuming we would be fine by Thursday.

We were not fine by Thursday. As I climbed up those 22 darkened flights of stairs to our powerless apartment to retrieve more clothes and emergency supplies and my daughter's pet mouse, the hotel was unavailable past Thursday. The only place with rooms in New York City, a crummy dive in the far West 30s, was asking $600 a night.

Why hadn't I booked the room for 10 nights and cancelled when power returned?

The answer is, I didn't think it would be that bad.

That's the biggest mistake we are all making during our new normal. We don't think it will be that bad. We don't think that the next time the power goes out, it could be even worse. We don't think that there could be another terrorist attack, let alone a cyber war, an eruption of the Yellowstone Caldera—the so-called Yellowstone Supervolcano in Wyoming--or a mega-tsunami triggered by the collapse of Cumbre Vieja, an active volcanic ridge on Spain's Canary Islands.

The massive and back-breaking efforts by emergency service workers, who got life back to near normal across the East coast in a short time, showed us that we are capable and resilient enough to deal with crises. But the loss and heartbreak we've seen also revealed something: The more we can anticipate and prepare for a new normal, the better off we'll be.

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About This Author
Pattie Sellers
Pattie Sellers
Senior Editor at Large, Fortune
Executive Director of MPW/Live Content, Time Inc.

Pattie Sellers has written more than 20 Fortune cover stories including "Marissa Mayer: Ready to Rumble at Yahoo," "Muhtar Kent's New Coke," "Oprah's Next Act", "The $100 Billion Woman" (Melinda Gates), and "Gone with the Wind" (Ted Turner). She co-founded Fortune Most Powerful Women and oversees the Fortune MPW Summit, the preeminent gathering of women leaders in business and beyond—and programs such as Fortune MPW Entrepreneurs and the Fortune-U.S. State Department Global Women Leaders Mentoring Partnership. Pattie also develops Live Content across Time Inc. Her blog, Postcards, is about how power players lead and navigate their careers. Pattie won Time Inc.'s prestigious MVP award for her performance in 2012.

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