East Coast apartment owners and managers, like residents, aren’t used to feeling the ground tremble beneath them. When they did this past Tuesday, it left them scrambling.

In some cases, the earthquake caused the evacuation of entire properties. For instance, The Northern Virginia Daily reported that the earthquake shattered water pipes in Shenandoah Commons in Front Royal, Va. That left 18 residents temporarily homeless (http://www.nvdaily.com/news/2011/08/earthquake-front-royal-apartment-complex-evacuated.php).

Fortunately, in other cases, the earthquake just required owners to spend extra resources to ensure that their properties, which weren’t built with earthquakes in mind, had stood up to the shaking. Memphis-based REIT Education Realty Trust (EDR) has three student properties at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, which was 27 miles from the epicenter, in Mineral, Va.

“Our maintenance staff has completed a walk-through of each of our communities looking for apparent damage,” Susan Jennings, vice president of corporate communications and marketing at EDR, said in an e-mail to Multifamily Executive. “They have found none.  In addition, they spoke with residents to get their feedback on any problems they saw or experienced. A structural engineer has been engaged to do a complete review of all of our properties in case of any unseen problems.”

Jennings said via e-mail that the main professional impact on site staff in Charlottesville was handling calls from concerned parents checking on the condition of the community. “Most parents were unable to reach their son or daughter immediately due to cell phone networks being overloaded,” she said. “Our landline phones worked throughout.”

The greatest loss suffered by EDR staff was personal. The home of one of the company’s site-level employees was severely damaged by the quake.

Norfolk, Va.–based Harbor Group International owns a big chunk of its 20,000 units along the East Coast, but Richard Litton Jr., president of the company, says they suffered no major damage.

“It scared me, though,” he says. “We’re on the 23rd floor and I’m looking out this big, open window and the floor started rumbling and the building started swaying.”

On Deck
Hurricane Irene is providing a lot more warning than the East Coast earthquake did. But the storm has the potential to cause a lot more damage. Apartment owners are preparing.

EDR has several properties in the area that could be affected by the storm, including two in North Carolina (in Chapel Hill and Greensboro) and one in Maryland (near the coast, in Salisbury). 

“We will be on alert, take every precaution, and communicate with our residents and their parents along every step of the way,” Jennings says.

Ann Arbor, Mich.–based McKinley has owned coastal real estate for 30 years and has encountered six named hurricanes in that time. The firm has learned some lessons as a result. For example, the company has learned to handle the essentials before a storm hits, including tying down anything that could fly away; trimming tree limbs that could become problematic; opening drains; and placing sandbags in low-lying areas. It coordinates with the Red Cross and tries to get residents out, as well.

McKinley has properties in Maryland and North Carolina that could be affected by Irene.“Our people are going door to door and telling residents they should leave,” Albert M. Berriz, McKinley’s CEO, says.

But what happens after the storm is just as important. The company needs to get in quickly to cover openings left by broken windows and roofs that may have been blown off by the storm. For a quick post-storm response, McKinley will mobilize a team in an area close by, yet outside of, the area hardest hit by the hurricane. It’s amassing a support group of about 30 to 35 people from other properties, plus six leaders experienced in hurricane response, in Richmond, Va.

Once the storm arrives, the team will move into office space McKinley has in the Chesapeake area of Virginia. The company can use that as a base of operations to access two nearby apartment communities. “The speed of response is the single biggest detriment to how soon we get the assets on line,”  Berriz says. “What we do in those [first] 72 hours after the storm is the most critical thing.”