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Hurricane Maria was far from the only natural disaster to devastate the U.S. in 2017. From Hurricane Harvey in Houston to massive wildfires in California, billions of dollars worth of damage to the nation’s housing stock and infrastructure took place.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which tracks billion-dollar disasters, there were 16 separate events in the U.S. last year with damages exceeding $1 billion. The price tag for those disasters: at least $306 billion, a new U.S. annual record, says NOAA.

With the 2018 hurricane season starting June 1, what can owners and property managers do to ensure that their communities are as safe as possible in the event of a major storm? The most important step, industry professionals say: Have a plan in place.

Laurie Schoeman, senior program director for national resilience initiatives at Enterprise Community Partners, says that well before a major storm is on a meteorologist’s radar, multifamily operators should assess their properties’ vulnerabilities and make capital investments when possible.

According to Enterprise, an up-front investment in the long-term resilience of a housing property yields financial protection against future losses. Each dollar invested in pre-disaster mitigation leads to an average $4 savings from avoided damages, as stated in Enterprise’s report Strategies for Multifamily Building Resilience.

Relocating electrical panels, mechanical equipment, gas and electric meters, and shut-offs to higher ground can pay dividends in the long run. Moreover, sealing cracks or openings in walls and the foundation and installing sump pumps will shore up a property in the event of a flood. Also, Enterprise advises, operators should install in floodable spaces building materials—including framing, wallboard, flooring, and ceiling paneling—that can survive water exposure without causing major damage, promoting mold or mildew, or absorbing contaminants.

New York–based investment firm Blackstone acquired Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village (known as StuyTown) in Manhattan’s East Village in late 2015, three years after Superstorm Sandy had flooded much of the complex, which features more than 11,200 units in 56 buildings across 80 acres.

According to Blackstone’s chief sustainability officer, Don Anderson, the team at StuyTown made big changes after Sandy, including installing critical infrastructure above flood-prone areas and securing a fleet of portable generators.

John Cetra, who owns New York–based architectural firm CetraRuddy, worked on weatherproofing a building in Manhattan that suffered damage from groundwater seepage during Sandy. “We created, essentially, a waterproof barrier underneath the existing foundations and exterior walls within an existing building,” he says. “That was a very difficult process, because it’s not like in a new building, where you excavate and you put down your waterproofing and run it up the sides of the excavation and seal it all up.”

Bob Geiger, principal at Partner Engineering and Science, a firm that provides engineering, environmental, and energy consulting and design services, says he’s noticed property owners in coastal areas who haven’t been proactive when it comes to weather-proofing their communities. “They’ve been lulled into a sense of security that those areas aren’t as risky for natural disasters,” he says. “We had a decade without major hurricane damage in some of these coastal areas.”

That was true at a lot of properties in Houston, Geiger adds, before Hurricane Harvey hit in August. Communities that had what could be described as minor vulnerabilities paid a significant price.

“Maybe they were unaware of that deterioration or damage so it was left dormant, but the recent hurricane event exacerbated it and exposed it more and really had a greater impact on the level of deterioration,” Geiger says. “Not having major events for such a period of time [caused] a general lack of attention to deferred issues.”

Industry veteran Jeff Pierce, who now serves as regional facilities director for Village Green, has worked through major storms such as Hurricane Andrew, which hit in Florida in 1991, and a major wind event later in the decade in North Carolina that damaged several roofs on properties his then-employer, Hanover, operated. Pierce applies the lessons learned in previous storms each time a new one occurs.

After the damage in North Carolina, Hanover’s approved vendors were busy with other jobs, so Pierce was faced with having to wait weeks to get the roofs fixed. Not willing to put off the work, he flew in a roofing company from Boise, Idaho, to start repairing the roofs immediately.

Don’t just rely on your local services, because they’re going to be stretched thin and you may be on a long waiting list,” Pierce says. “You have to think outside the box.”

At Village Green, like a host of multifamily operators across the country, there’s a well-thought-out emergency plan in place at each property. After notifying residents about an impending storm and providing them with emergency contacts, Village Green shores up its properties. It keeps an inventory of plywood and tarps on-site to mitigate any damage after a storm until repairs can be made. It also stores away potential projectiles, such as pool furniture.

Pierce’s advice? Throw the furniture in the pool. “Once it’s underwater, it won’t fly away,” he tells his property managers.

To read our coverage of Hurricane Maria's devastation and the rebuild efforts underway in Puerto Rico, click here.