As the cleanup from hurricane Katrina continues, and with it the debate over which government entity should have done what and when, the question facing companies is: Where does the private sector fit in?
For companies in the Gulf area, the storm offered a stark reminder that business is fundamentally personal. Budgets, metrics, even shareholder value have taken a backseat as finance chiefs work around the clock first to find their employees, then to house them (see “Regrouping after Katrina”). Many are continuing to pay workers whether or not they can actually work.
Companies further afield have answered the question by giving generously in kind and in cash. Businesses ranging from Intel to GE to Wal-Mart to Pfizer have donated millions of dollars and — with an efficiency that puts an unflattering light on federal efforts — brought critical supplies to the area. Even if, as some cynics have observed, the motive behind some of the largesse may owe as much to public relations as to public spirit, corporations have leveraged their enormous resources for the common good to a truly inspiring degree.
What comes next? Inevitably, conflicts, as businesses in the Gulf work to serve customers and meet shareholder demands while struggling to help a dislocated workforce. Among the larger business community, one can expect more-intense scrutiny of business-recovery plans and perhaps a closer look at vulnerabilities close to home. But what should also come next is a concerted effort by corporate leaders to participate in the analysis of what went wrong. Given the cumulative weight of 9/11, the Asian tsunami, and now Katrina, companies must use their considerable influence to make sure that all members of the community, and especially the public sector, do better the next time disaster strikes.