Is your business prepared to handle a hurricane or other natural disaster?

Tropical Storm Harvey was just the beginning. With Houston and the surrounding region still underwater from the massive rainfalls produced by Harvey, forecasters and news media are watching as Hurricane Irma--the biggest storm ever recorded in the Atlantic--barrels through the Caribbean, possibly headed for South Florida. Evacuations have already been ordered for the Florida Keys and for those with special needs in the Miami area. Wherever it hits land, Irma will arrive with a level of brutality never yet seen. For perspective, the storm is larger than Ohio.

Even then, we won't be done. Hurricane season lasts until November 1, and experts have predicted at least five hurricane-level storms this year. In fact, meteorologists are already tracking Tropical Storm José, which is currently 1,500 miles east of the Lesser Antilles and likely to become a hurricane over the next few days.

Hurricanes don't strike every part of the country. But no corner of the United States is completely safe from natural disaster, including earthquakes, tornados, volcanic activity, or the kinds of wildfires currently burning in the West.

It's time to ask: Is your business prepared to handle a hurricane or other natural disaster? It's hard to get through an event like Harvey or Irma without a high level of disruption. But planning for that disruption and doing what you can to minimize its effects can make the difference between a business that will continue on after hurricane season is over and one that may have to shut its doors for good.

Start your preparations by asking the following questions.

1. Is your workplace physically secure?

Steps to take include checking the solidity of the roof, storing or securing any outdoor objects such as chairs and signs, and having sandbags, mops, buckets, and cleaning supplies for a post-hurricane cleanup.

2. How do we keep people safe if a hurricane hits while they're at work?

Ideally, you've had ample warning that a storm is about to hit, and told employees to work from home or take a day off. And it goes without saying that you and your employees should follow any evacuation orders you are given. But what if a hurricane hits and people are in the office?

You should be prepared with an evacuation plan for your office even if you aren't officially instructed to evacuate. And you should prepare for disaster in your office as you at home, in case you and any employees get trapped. That means having a three-day supply of non-perishable foods, such as canned goods, a gallon of water per person per day, flashlights, batteries, and extra charging batteries for mobile phones, and plastic garbage bags with ties and wipes to help you maintain hygiene. Having a laminated map of the surrounding area is also a good idea.

3. How will you communicate during a hurricane?

Utilities and cell towers often stop working during a hurricane, so you should anticipate how you'll handle communications if a hurricane hits. Plan to have employees check in on the Red Cross Safe & Well site (some may also want to check in with Facebook, which is fine, but it's possible not all your employees use Facebook).

Beyond finding out that everyone is safe, you should also make a plan for letting employees know the status of your workplace, and for them to let you know if they are able to come to work, in the days after the storm hits.

Next, you should consider how you will communicate with customers. They will be eager to know how the storm will affect your operations, and whether your ability to deliver goods or services on time will be compromised. Make a plan ahead of time as to who will reach out to customers during a crisis, and how customer questions will be handled.

4. How will you keep valuable documents and data safe?

Valuable documents stored onsite should be secured where they will be safe and waterproof. Important data should be backed up offsite or in the cloud. If feasible, you should also have a plan to relocate to temporary offices or use a generator and your own network to provide power and internet access to employees so they can resume work as soon as possible.

5. How will you help employees during and after the crisis?

Your company may have benefits in place that can help employees during a hurricane, such as an employee assistance program, relocation assistance, etc. Make sure employees know about all the benefits available to them so they can put their lives back together again, and get back to work, as quickly as possible. At the same time, there are multiple government agencies that can offer them various forms of assistance, at the federal, state, and local levels. Compile a list of these agencies and how to contact them that you can share with employees. Here's a good place to start.

Also, keep in mind that you may need to give one or more employees leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) if they develop a medical condition because of the hurricane, or a member of their family does.

6. How should you pay employees during and after the crisis?

Don't be caught off-guard by the labor laws surrounding work during a crisis. For your nonexempt employees (generally, hourly workers) you need only pay them for hours worked. Be prepared to pay some of them overtime as they take on extra tasks to recover from the hurricane or work extra hours to make up for employees who can't come in.

When it comes to exempt employees (generally, those who draw a regular salary), you must pay them for an entire week if they work any part of that week, even if your business is closed due to the hurricane. You can withhold pay only if you are closed for an entire week and your exempt employees do no work at all from home or any other location. However, you may be able to designate time paid for when employees didn't work as paid time off.