Jill Heron was thankful to have community partners to turn to when a flood damaged 60 units at a Flaherty & Collins property last June in Fort Wayne, Ind.

Communication amongst staff members, residents and community partners was crucial as the company dealt with the water's aftermath, says Heron, vice president of property and asset management at Indianapolis-based Flaherty & Collins.

The property endured a flash flood and units were filled with water—up to six feet in some places. In addition to asking local apartment association partners for help, the Red Cross and Salvation Army were called in to help.

Flaherty & Collins received help from other local apartment communities when it came time to relocate the families living in the damaged units as they were restored.

“We were very fortunate to have a couple apartment communities that came with open arms saying they would help expedite the process,” she says.

Heron teaches crisis management classes on behalf of the Indiana Apartment Association and suggests identifying a staff member at each property who can handle immense pressure in a tough situation.

“You have to make sure that people who are relaying information are calm and are relaying accurate information and are effective communicators,” she says. “It’s easy to lose your head in a situation very quickly.”

And the onsite staff was able to turn to other Flaherty & Collins property managers who had driven hours from across the state to come help.

Flaherty & Collins uses a mobile application to let residents know what is happening in the event of a crisis. They also have a text system for efficient emergency communication.

“We had that during the flood,” Heron says. “We were able to keep the communication going on with the residents.”

Communication and Unity
While mobile apps and texting can be important tools, sometimes they are simply not available.

When tornadoes tore through a Cohen-Esrey's 17-building property in Joplin, Mo., Ryan Huffman had to trust his managers to do their jobs without instruction since communication had been shut down. All of their prep work was put to the test.

Huffman, a senior vice president at Overland Park, Kan.-based Cohen-Esrey, warns property managers to also train staff to have specific roles and not to depend on communicating through phones.

Clean-up crews weren’t able to get to the property in the days following the disaster, phone communication was spotty, road blockages prevented senior-level managers from getting into the city and the Cohen-Esrey on-site team was left to take charge without direct corporate instruction. Huffman recalls looking at the wreckage on television and trying to get through to his team to deploy resources.

“We were working with just a few text messages here and there,” he says.

Although none of the buildings on the company’s property were completely leveled to the ground, all of them were damaged to the point of being unsalvageable and had to be rebuilt. But two years later, Huffman can still speak with pride about the work his team did amidst the destruction.

“We learned that we had trained much better than we thought,” he says. “We learned that our people were much more intuitive than we ever could have given them credit for.”

The staff demonstrated care and compassion, not to mention diligence, when dealing with the disaster. More than 150 people were killed in the area and many were injured as the tornadoes rolled through on May 22, 2011, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Since back-up help couldn’t get to the property, anyone on site when the tornadoes hit was responsible for helping residents get to hospitals and get help, while keeping an eye out for looting and crime.

“Our primary goal was to account for every person,” Huffman says. “We made sure we knew where every resident was. When we ended that day, there were only two people missing and we found them the next morning safe elsewhere.”

Heron suggests keeping an updated emergency reference binder on site for incidents where communication could be compromised due to extreme disaster. While all of the staff members should be trained on the protocol, the binder can also serve as a comprehensive guide, just in case.

“You need to know who you’re calling and who your resources are so you can keep people safe and informed,” she says. “And then you can start the rebuilding process at the end of the day.”

Lindsay Machak is an Associate Editor for Multifamily Executive. Connect with her on Twitter @LMachak.