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Jan. 2, 2013

Surviving Sandy

By Jessica Fiur, News Editor

During Hurricane Sandy, many multifamily communities were hit hard, particularly those in Battery Park City—an area in lower Manhattan near the Hudson River. MHN News Editor Jessica Fiur talked to Michael Gubbins, senior vice president of Albanese Organization Inc., which owns and develops properties in Battery Park City as well as other areas of New York, about how their properties fared and why their properties might have had an advantage over some of the others in the area.

Give us some background on your assets. Where do you have properties, and how did the New York properties fare during Hurricane Sandy?

Albanese is a full-service real estate organization. We have properties throughout the tri-state area. In the New York metro area, we have commercial and residential properties in Manhattan. In Battery Park City, we have three high-rise residential buildings. They’re all LEED-Platinum buildings, and they’re all luxury buildings. These were all located in Flood Zone A, and during the recent events of Hurricane Sandy, there was a mandatory evacuation in place for those properties, and all our residents had to leave. They returned back to the building a few days later. Even though we were in Zone A and there was a mandatory evacuation, the Department of Buildings inspected our buildings, and because we were lucky enough not to have sustained any damages, we were allowed to bring people back to the building—they gave us a green certification.

Up in the Chelsea area, we have another building—a LEED-Platinum building with 301 apartments, and in that building we lost power for a week. Some of our other properties, such as a property on 37th Street, weren’t really affected. We also have some commercial spaces in West Chelsea, and we were okay over there as well. We also have some properties on Long Island that were fine.

We have emergency evacuation plans in place, and we spend a lot of time training our staff and our residents to deal with emergencies.

In addition to the evacuation plan, what other steps did you also take to prepare for the hurricane?

All of our staff are trained as first responders. Because we have this emergency disaster plan in place when it comes to an event like Hurricane Sandy, each team member knows where to take their place and what needs to be done. The people are the most important thing you have in the building, so getting the people evacuated from the building and getting the message out to them is very important. Communication is very important. All year long, we communicate out to the residents about all sorts of different activities and different events, and we keep them up to date.

How do you communicate with residents during an event like Sandy?

We have a system called Building Link, which we utilize in our buildings. Building Link is an online communications system between residents and management. On a day-to-day basis, this could simply be used for letting you know you have a package or giving you an update on a work order. But during times when we need to send out a message to large volumes of people, we can actually send that message out very fast through e-mail, or if need be, we could do an emergency broadcast. The emergency broadcast can be done in less than 60 seconds—we can actually put a message in, and it will call all the different phones we have on file.

Communication is very important beforehand, during and after the event. So we successfully got the message out and contacted residents. While people were away  from home we kept them up to date on the events and let them know when to come back. We also kept them up to date as Manhattan was normalizing in terms of transportation, parking rules, etc. And there are many less fortunate people out there who were harder hit by Sandy. So our residents and our organization have been helping with donations and sending labor out to Brooklyn, Staten Island and Long Beach.

As far as the staff itself, the public and private partnership is very important, so most of our guys have taken a Community Emergency Response Team (CERT). Battery Park City has the largest CERT team in the country. CERT is a first-responder group set up by FEMA many years ago. So the guys have training in search and rescue and medical and know the psychology of dealing with events like this.

For the buildings themselves, we put sandbags in the entrances and protected our glass areas. We put generators in place. We were prepared for flooding if that was to happen, or if we were to have a power failure. You need to have alternative plans; you can’t just rely on the phone lines. We set up Skype and worked with the satellite phones so we knew we had communication.

Was this the first time your emergency system was really tested?

During [last year’s] Hurricane Irene, we had to evacuate buildings as well. We have several assets in Manhattan, and all of our staffs in all of our buildings are cross-trained to each property, and all of our management is the same way. We can deploy people from one place to another, and we tend to have the same guidelines in place for all buildings as far as emergency evacuations. When it comes to evacuations, we also put systems in place, like buses to move people out and to get them safely to public transportation.

You mentioned that your buildings are certified LEED-Platinum. Do you think any of your green building practices might have helped mitigate the effects of the hurricane?

All our roofs are green—they’re vegetative roofs—so we capture the rainwater in those roofs, and it goes from the roof to the storm water tanks. We use that water during the year. During heavy rains, those green roofs actually slow the water from getting to the streets. The design and construction of the buildings was very important. In our Battery Park City buildings, all the mechanical systems are located in the roof of the building, and all of our electrical systems are above-grade. This is very important because a lot of the buildings that had substantial damage in Manhattan had flooding in their cellars, and their cellars is where they had their mechanical equipment. You never know where water is going to come from.

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