Gaithersburg-based Sodexho Inc. still doesn't know the whereabouts of 250 employees caught up in Hurricane Katrina, and the company is determined that Rita will not wreak the same confusion.
Sodexho is one of several Washington area companies with operations in the hurricane zone that have had to absorb some quick lessons about disaster preparation. Three days ago, Sodexho started through a phone list of 800 employees in Rita's potential path, compiling contact information and giving out a toll-free number so employees could check in.
On Thursday, with the sun shining and Rita's path still unknown, WR Grace & Co. closed its chemical plant in Lake Charles, La., and sent its 330 employees home. It was the third time in 23 years that the Columbia-based company had to close that facility.
Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin Corp., which has 1,000 employees at the Johnson Space Center, ran public service ads in the Houston area urging its employees to call an 800 number. All had done so by Friday afternoon.
Booz Allen Hamilton Inc., a worldwide consulting firm with headquarters in McLean, has an in-house team that acts as the company's emergency management agency, planning for the worst and swooping in when necessary to assist its consultants around the world during disasters.
Working out of the company's headquarters, the seven-person business assurance office staff tells Booz Allen's remote offices how to prepare for all kinds of threats, including terrorism, floods and even epidemics.
"We recently did two or three tabletop exercises on avian flu," said Ray Thomas, manager of the business assurance division.
With consultants working across the country and the world, Booz Allen's emergency team has been busy. "We've had a number of opportunities to refine our approach in managing incidents, starting with Hurricane Isabel, the London bombings and Madrid," Thomas said.
For Katrina, Thomas and his team focused their attention on the firm's office in Pensacola, Fla., and Thomas said they had to "play a bit of catch-up" when the hurricane took a more westward path, toward New Orleans.
The firm has 130 consultants in Houston and 14 evacuees from the New Orleans office.
Thomas said the disaster-response philosophy is to empower the local "instant command teams" to direct the on-the-ground response. "The last thing we want to do is say we're from headquarters and we want to help," Thomas said.
Booz Allen had a command team in place in for its two offices in Houston, making sure there was contact information such as phone numbers and e-mails for all employees. The local team also safeguarded the offices by shipping data backups to the McLean headquarters, moving equipment away from exterior offices and covering computers with plastic sheeting.
Thomas sent a satellite phone to Houston by Federal Express yesterday.
As Rita makes landfall, Thomas's team is to monitor the Houston response with an afternoon conference call and will have additional calls throughout the weekend to monitor activity and provide support if necessary.
At Sodexho, spokeswoman Stacy Bowman-Hide said, "Absolutely, we're better prepared."
Staff writer Dina ElBoghdady contributed to this report.