Storm Watch

Preparation is the apartment industry’s best disaster planning tool.

By Keith Loria, Contributing Editor

There’s a lot to deal with when managing a multifamily development but one item has moved up the rankings of importance for many in the past few years—that of preparing for a natural disaster or strong weather occurrence.

In the past two years, the Northeast was hit by major storms Irene and Sandy, the Midwest has dealt with raging wildfires and the rest of the country has had more than its share of tornados, earthquakes and major winter storms. In fact, in 2012 alone, there were 11 extreme weather events in the U.S. and each had damages exceeding $1 billion.

These storms often wreak havoc on a property and what many multifamily developments realized—and realized too late—was that there was no realistic, actionable plan in place at the property for before, during and after a storm. That is something that has changed considerably as many preparedness lessons were learned by these events.

“Any owner of a multifamily or assisted living facility should consider what the natural and man-made hazards are that expose the property,” says Chuck Miccolis, commercial lines engineer for the Institute for Business & Home Safety, which offers insights and guidance on key rebuilding issues to help apartment communities repair or rebuild so that their properties are stronger and more resilient. “Once I know that, I would like to know what are the capabilities of the emergency response teams and whether I have the personnel to meet the needs of the complex.”

Other concerns to be considered are ensuring residents know all evacuation zones, having updated maps and schematics in place and devising plans for all residents to evacuate safely. There should be a call-list to alert everyone and, of course, a way to communicate back and forth if the phone lines go down.

Then there are the individual building concerns and protecting the building’s envelope during a storm or disaster. Miccolis recommends yearly inspections of the roof and foundation and additional inspections after every major storm.

“The roof is the first line of defense against the elements so you should make sure that there are no leaks or damage before the threat of a storm,” he says. “To protect windows, you should have hurricane shutters, but make sure that is in your emergency plan. You need to have the staff and manpower to protect the building, and if you only have a small maintenance staff and a large property, the plan won’t work.”

Barbara K. Schoor serves as vice president for Community Investment Strategies Inc., a Lawrenceville, N.J.-based real estate company that manages more than 3,000 multifamily units in New Jersey. CIS was recently selected as one of 12 organizations to participate in Enterprise Community Partners’ Hurricane Sandy Recovery and Rebuilding Program, a collaborative that is developing best practices to enhance the long-term capacity of the region’s affordable housing infrastructure in the wake of Superstorm Sandy.

“One of the reasons we were interested in becoming part of this is there’s an awful lot of planning you don’t realize you need to be doing. None of the policies are that difficult and not even that innovative, but they have to be in place for things to work,” Schoor says. “We are looking at ways to assess our communities’ vulnerability in the event of future crises and find effective, maximum-impact options to repair physical damage, and identify potential financing mechanisms to implement retrofits.”

One of the most important components of creating a plan is communication with residents, vendors and all staff.

“You need to set the expectations of your residents and make sure they are prepared as well. One of the things the collaborative is looking at is the best ways to educate people so they are prepared,” Schoor says. “Another important part of the plan is the communication with various service organizations that exist in the community, so they understand about us and know what our needs might be in an emergency.”

When Superstorm Sandy hit New Jersey last year, CIS had a plan in place, but it didn’t account for the floods and major damage that was happening. Plus, its senior properties were much more vulnerable in a crisis than expected.

“We found ourselves having to become a service provider. A lot of what we were faced with—helping residents secure medication, contacting or locating family members to help people evacuate, providing flashlights and essentials—had us assume the role of a special needs housing provider when there’s not an emergency,” Schoor says. “We go beyond bricks and mortar when we plan our communities and in emergency situations, we want to go beyond as well.”

One tip from the collaborative’s early sessions is for multifamily developments to have preparedness classes on a routine basis, both for staff and residents. Other ideas are to have a checklist handy, keep a complete list of contacts for all staff and residents and know the vendors to call when items are needed.

Staying ahead of climate change

When an apartment community is developing a plan for disaster preparedness, it’s important to consider climate change and its effects into all planning. In May, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and American Rivers released “Getting Climate Smart: A Water Preparedness Guide for State Action,” a report designed to help states develop climate preparedness plans focused on water to help keep communities resilient.

“Our guide specifically looks at climate change impact like flooding, drought, water scarcity and things of that nature and how people can develop a plan to address these impacts,” says Ben Chou, co-author of the report. “We outline a six-step process that includes educating people about climate change, setting up groups to talk about risks, strategies they can take to reduce impact, implementing a plan and updating that plan as new information comes in.”

Not anticipating what could happen is the biggest problem when disaster hits. A good strategy for multifamily, Chou says, is making sure emergency evacuation plans are in place and that the routes aren’t in vulnerable areas that could flood and be un-travelable, which could impact the ability of people to leave and also the likelihood of first responders getting to the scene.

“You should also make sure that people are aware of the evacuation plans—the elderly, those who don’t speak English well, people of low income—and make sure they understand what to do ahead of time,” Chou says. “There should also be a discussion on the critical systems-—water, sewer and communications—and these shouldn’t be in vulnerable or hazardous areas like basements that can flood.”

The weather disasters of the last several years have put many on alert to the hazards that could come and have shown them the importance of having a plan in place.

“The worst thing is being unprepared and underestimating what can happen,” Miccolis says. “No two storms are alike and even if you’ve made it unscathed through one, it doesn’t mean that you are safe for the next one.”

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