By the time Hurricane Ivan threatened Florida in September, Michael Martin had already made multiple trips to buy supplies and materials to protect his company's properties. "It's bad when they know you by name at Home Depot," says Martin, executive director for human resource development (and the unofficial disaster preparation expert) at CALEX Realty Group, a 10,000-unit property management firm based in Jacksonville, Fla.

After all, the Sunshine State had already braved two other hurricanes–Charley and Frances–before Ivan made its approach. Satellite photos capture the late summer storm succession well: As Frances spins over Florida, Ivan waits, hovering in the southeast.

It's an ominous photo, especially for a state that was still recovering from Hurricane Charley's hit. But Martin and his colleagues in the multifamily industry were ready. "Hurricanes are different from any other type of disaster because it's a planned disaster," he says. Weather forecasters can predict with reasonable accuracy when the storms will hit, he explains, giving people time to make preparations and evacuate areas in the storm's path.

Still, all the advance warning in the world won't make a difference if one doesn't know what to do. Says Martin: "The first thing and the last thing we tell people is, 'Be prepared.'"

Brief Your People At CALEX, which instituted a disaster management program after a near-miss with Hurricane Floyd in 1999, hurricane preparation and education always begins June 1–the first day of the six-month hurricane season.

Employees new and old are reminded to update their personal emergency plans and supplies, from keeping an ample supply of medications available to stockpiling batteries and cash. "That's typically what falls apart," Martin says. "People think it's no big deal, and they're the ones who end up in a panic situation, standing in line at the grocery store, where there's a run on batteries and bottled water, or stuck on the interstate running out of gas, or going to Atlanta, where there are no hotel rooms left."

A FEMA worker provides information to victims of Hurricane Frances, one of the first of the 2004 hurricane season.
A FEMA worker provides information to victims of Hurricane Frances, one of the first of the 2004 hurricane season.

By helping employees prepare themselves and their families, the company believes, those on site will be better able to assist and soothe residents in a severe weather situation. "They have to know how to deal with these issues," Martin says, "because out of 3,000 residents, 2,000 will be in their offices asking, 'Where do I go?' 'What do I do with my pets?' 'Where are the shelters?'"

They must also know how to best evacuate the property. That can be a challenge in some apartment properties, where there are limited numbers of entrances (and exits). Finally, they need to be aware of residents who might need extra help or time–elderly retirees, children, or immigrants who may not be familiar with such storms.

Of course, the company does its best to educate residents in advance of storm weather as well. Each hurricane season, tenants receive a letter that offers advice on bracing for such a storm and outlines the property's procedures in such a situation. "Once we're under a hurricane watch [which generally comes 36 to 48 hours before a storm makes landfall], we go to a skeleton crew," Martin says. "Once we're under a hurricane warning, the offices are closed."