Coca Cola United
Customers Jul 20, 2021

How Coca-Cola UNITED Navigates Post-Hurricane Recovery

Coca-Cola UNITED’s Chief People Officer on how the company overcame a destructive hurricane and why communication was key to doing so.

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In 2018, Coca-Cola Bottling UNITED, Inc. faced an enormous challenge when Hurricane Michael devastated their Panama City facilities. In a recent episode of The Employee Safety Podcast, Gianetta Jones, Vice President & Chief People Officer at Coca-Cola Bottling, shared how the company overcame this destructive event and why communication was key to doing so.

Coca-Cola UNITED is a family-owned and operated, privately-held bottler and distributor based in Birmingham, Alabama with 9,800 employees. They have eight production centers and 52 distribution centers, 14 of which are located in coastal areas of the Southeast.

You can listen to the full episode below.

Many people remember Hurricane Michael from 2018. It was an extremely powerful storm that became the first category 5 hurricane to hit the U.S. since Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Before the hurricane hit, did you feel like you were prepared for it, both in terms of protecting your people and your facilities?
We felt like we were prepared because we have extensive hurricane preparedness plans across all of our coastal locations. If you think about a natural disaster, the Red Cross typically arrives first, but Coca-Cola UNITED is right behind them distributing water to impacted areas.

We were thrown a curveball with Hurricane Michael, however, because we did not prepare for the telephone infrastructure to be severely damaged. We had to pivot and purchase satellite phones for our operators to be able to communicate. We were also unable to operate out of our facilities, which created a new set of challenges. We are a well-prepared company, but you can never underestimate a storm.

What did you experience during the hurricane itself? What was it like for your people in Florida and the surrounding areas?
When Katrina hit our Baton Rouge location, our facility became a place of refuge for our associates. With Hurricane Michael, however, Panama City took a direct hit and we had so much damage to our facility that it was inoperable. Fifty of our 80 Panama City associates either lost everything or had severe damage to their homesit was an emotional time for our people. The worst part was, the first few days after the storm, we couldn’t get in contact with anybody. That triggered the need for the capability that AlertMedia now provides us.

“"The worst part was, the first few days after the storm, we couldn't get in contact with anybody. That triggered the need for the capability that AlertMedia now provides us." ”
Gianetta Jones
Gianetta Jones Chief People Officer, Coca-Cola UNITED

Let’s talk about the aftermath. What was the damage like, and how did your organization recover?
Communication was critical for us to recover from Hurricane Michael because we had to connect with our associates to determine their whereabouts and assess their needs as well as the needs of their families. We set up tents in our location’s parking lot to provide food and water. We also brought in on-site fueling trucks to fuel chainsaws and personal vehicles, because fuel was unavailable for weeks. We also paid everybody in cash for weeks, because without power, credit cards and ATM machines were useless.

We also performed one-on-one assessments with each employee and their families to help provide clean clothes and shelter. We brought in employee assistance counselors to help people deal with the shock and loss of the event. It’s crucial to not only take care of your people physically but also mentally. One thing we learned from this experience is how resilient people are. As time went on, we had people turn down money and supplies to help others that were also in need. It was incredible.

How did you communicate with your employees before, during, and after the event?
Hurricane Michael made us realize that we needed a better tool to communicate, because nobody had power and nobody was checking emails. But everyone had their phones, and those work even when phone lines are down. So that’s a great capability with AlertMedia.

As things began to reopen and power was restored, convenience stores and groceries cleared out of merchandise quickly, so we had to reroute to service those locations. It was a logistics challenge, but everybody on the UNITED team really leans in to get the job done.

"Hurricane Michael made us realize that we needed a better tool to communicate, because nobody had power and nobody was checking emails."

What systems, initiatives, or tools have you implemented since then to enhance your hurricane preparedness plan?
We encourage all of our employees to download the AlertMedia app. It allows them to view a map of their location and get real-time updates on approaching storms and any other threats. It’s very easy to use and prevents us from over-complicating things. This keeps us connected with our people, which is essential during emergencies where things change so quickly.

With the 2021 hurricane season now upon us, what can the audience do today to be more prepared?  
Make sure all of your associates know what to do in an emergency, especially if they live in a tropical area. Do you have water on hand? What’s your evacuation plan? Who do you need to contact? What about your pets? Get people thinking about these questions ahead of time and make sure that your HR teams are connecting with local leaders. When hurricane season begins, remind everybody of the tools at their disposal. If you already have AlertMedia, refresh your team on how to navigate, how to respond, and what to watch for.

Also, be ready to pull from areas that have not been impacted by the storm to see if you can logistically bring in food, clothing, and anything else people may need. You have to observe what’s happening at the moment, almost like a quarterback on the field, and instantly be able to communicate changes, which can be very hard to do without automation.

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