Firms Extend Helping Hand After Hurricane Sandy

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By Sheryl Nance-Nash

Hurricane Sandy left an estimated $50 billion in damage in her wake, along with bad memories that won't soon fade. 

Accounting firms on the East Coast were impacted and so were their clients. Many are now going the extra mile to help employees and the community.

Reverberations still felt

Eleven of the fourteen offices of WithumSmith+Brown were impacted by Sandy. All eleven lost power and telecom connectivity for a period of time, and two offices were without power for nearly two weeks.

"Our staff are finding it very difficult to keep focused. There are a number of our staff who lost their homes. In addition, everyone in those eleven offices knows of someone in their neighborhood who lost their home", says James Bourke, a partner in the Red Bank, New Jersey, office.

The firm has asked staff to specifically identify lost time in connection with Sandy.

As for what lessons were learned",Our Cloud model for doing business was the right decision. That model allowed our partners and staff to be fully functional within twenty-four hours of the storm, regardless of the physical condition of their offices", says Bourke. "I will be looking at alternatives to vendors who are not in the Cloud", he adds.

The firm has also had to deal with clients who were devastated. "Many, many of them lost either their homes or the contents of their homes. They are coming to us as their trusted advisor to assist with damage claims and calculations, and looking to us to guide them through the red tape and paperwork from their insurance and FEMA."

Sweeping action and moving forward

Nearly 10,000 of PricewaterhouseCooper's (PwC) people were directly impacted by the storm. The firm's National Crisis Assessment Team monitored the storm, prepared for its arrival, and communicated with staff through e-mail and intranet.

"We conducted a targeted outreach to all of our people who lived in highly impacted areas, followed by auto check in via e-mail, text, and voice mail. A one-on-one outreach then took place for those who did not respond", says Brendan Dougher, New York Metro managing partner.

With all the precision of a military operation, PwC made conference rooms available for clients displaced by the storm. The firm's travel department found hotel rooms for short- and long-term stays for employees, and the PwC Charitable Foundation offered payouts of up to $2,500 for employees' emergency lodging. As of November 13, the Foundation has granted more than $400,000 to move more than 200 people, with more in the process to receive funds.

The firm purchased and shipped in generators from outside the area and distributed them to staff on the Saturday after the storm. It also deployed a support database so their people could help one another with housing, carpooling, recharging electronics, and sharing generators.

The helping hand extends beyond the PwC family. The Foundation donated $500,000 to local relief organizations; PwC partners donated $1 million to the Red Cross; and offices across the United States continue fundraising and organizing coat, food, blood, and other drives.

MayerMeinberg, which is headquartered in Syosett, New York, may have been without power, but it was fully operational by Friday, four days after the hurricane struck. "Our price tag included the cost of payroll for the four days when we were closed and the cost of additional services needed for our outside computer management team", says Robert Mayer, comanaging partner.

He too is touting the merits of Cloud computing. "Saving important documents to an Internet Cloud is a good way to have access to documents, despite the location. We're also planning on setting up more of our software on a Cloud [platform] so we can remotely access it without a concern for electric service in our offices and [so] our employees can work safely from home."

MayerMeinberg rallied around clients, offering Wi-Fi access to those who needed it, a space to work in their Syosset office, and pro bono advice for those who suffered a financial loss.

Although none of McGladrey's seventy-five offices were physically impacted by Sandy, some offices did close and/or employees were encouraged to work from home.

"Some employees in our New York, Stamford, and New Haven offices struggled with disruption of several days of power outages; loss of Internet/phone/cable service; gasoline shortages; and, in certain cases, home damage caused by flooding and/or falling trees", says Katie Lamkin, human resources leader at McGladrey.

Since there was no physical damage to the firm's offices, costs were relatively minimal and were essentially limited to loss of work and some employees' commuting expenses. "As a firm, we were very fortunate, and we feel for our clients and employees who were adversely impacted", says Lamkin.

"We learned not to take heat, power, water, and connectivity through our computers or telephones for granted. While our business continuity plan worked, it can be improved", she says.

Over the next several months, McGladrey plans to provide volunteer assistance and financial support to those areas that were significantly damaged by the storm. The firm established a "giving" platform to help employees, clients, and communities impacted by Hurricane Sandy. The firm also encouraged employees, who were able, to contribute to the United Way Hurricane Sandy Recovery Fund and/or the Mayor's Fund to Advance New York City through payroll deduction. For every dollar donated by employees to one of the funds, McGladrey is contributing a dollar to the McGladrey Hurricane Sandy Relief Fund, up to $100,000.

WeiserMazar has set up a Hurricane Loan Program and a Hurricane Relief Fund for its staff. The firm has designated $250,000 for interest-free loans for staff. The maximum loan per employee is $5,000, with repayment beginning ninety days after the loan. According to a letter from Douglas Phillips, managing partner",Because of the unprecedented damage and resulting injury to the firm's staff, it is initiating a fund-raising effort to help WeiserMazar's people. The idea is to raise money from the partners and staff to create a pool of available funds to deliver to those employees in the greatest need to help get them back on their feet."

There is still an air of sobriety. Says Lamkin",We learned that a hurricane of this magnitude impacts everyone - clients and employees alike."

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