Every hurricane is unique in its intensity and damage, as evidenced by hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, which battered communities on the U.S. mainland and several island territories last fall.
After the devastating storms last year, inevitably the conversation turned to hurricane preparedness and whether enough was done beforehand to mitigate the damage the three events caused. But hurricane preparation isn’t just about protecting your property; it’s also about planning for recovery. That’s the approach managed communities must take when facing nature’s wrath.
As we head into the start of a new hurricane season in less than two months, the following best practices can help multifamily property owners and operators ensure there’s a calm before, during, and after a storm.
Planning Ahead … Seriously
Well before hurricane season begins, property managers should prepare a “hurricane procedures playbook” with key information including staff phone numbers, addresses, emergency contacts, roles and responsibilities, and designation of essential personnel. The playbook should be reviewed at a preparation “kick-off” meeting with all staff, along with other company policies and staff availability, scheduling, and contingencies for family emergencies.
The property manager should work closely with the property owners to prepare a checklist of actions and channels to share critical information with tenants. At FirstService Residential, for example, we prepare a customized, comprehensive disaster plan specific to the needs of each community and its residents that considers the building’s equipment, construction materials, and evacuation routes.
The plan, which includes pre-storm procedures, tips to make residential units storm ready, disaster-relief information, shelter details, emergency response numbers, and—for those with special needs, a Municipal Vulnerable Persons registry—must be shared across all residents, building staff, and management.
Every building also needs a reliable means of communication to keep residents informed regularly. We use a resident alert system that sends automated email and text messages to keep tenants updated. Additionally, an owner should be designated, along with the community manager, to be a liaison with emergency services providers on-site.
Prior to the start of hurricane season June 1, a property manager should review all community contracts and policies to confirm the level of commitment to expect from landscaping, security, and construction vendors should the community sustain damage. Doing so will help determine whether any new agreements are needed to allow for safe access for residents after the storm.
The same holds for reviewing the property’s insurance policies, to ensure they’re up-to-date and offer sufficient coverage. A good property manager should read through the fine print to help the owners get a firm grasp on things like limits, exclusions, and deductibles.
Staff Safety and Responsibilities
Staffing during a hurricane threat is a balancing act, since there is a responsibility to assist the community without endangering employees in the process.
Leading up to a hurricane, essential personnel—managers, engineers, and front desk people—should remain at the property to maintain building services and assist residents with evacuation. Once sustained winds reach 45 mph and the hurricane is imminent, these personnel, under the direction of the manager, should work to mitigate damage to designated mechanical equipment by following the steps outlined in the equipment service agreements for the elevators, water pumps, HVAC systems, and so on, and then evacuate!
Once a mandatory evacuation of the property is announced, absolutely no staff should remain on-site. Prior to leaving, all employees should be given specific instructions regarding when they should come back to work and the email address or cell number to contact management for updates. The manager should be the last employee to leave, after reporting to a company supervisor and the owners about the evacuation of the building.
IMPORTANT NOTE: If the property is located in an area that may be designated as “residents only” by officials after a storm, employees should secure identification allowing them access to the property from the local city officials.
As soon as forecasts indicate a storm is on its way, managers should perform anticipatory grounds maintenance, including emptying Dumpsters, trimming trees, removing or securing large rocks, securing outdoor furniture, and preparing the pool/spa area. In multifamily buildings, managers must instruct residents with balconies to bring inside all contents from that area.
Managers should then take time-stamped pictures and/or video of the property’s exterior and common areas, storing them in a safe place off-site or backed up in the cloud. Another option is to hire a professional engineer to conduct a formal pre-storm analysis and supply a report. This information can be invaluable during the insurance claims process.
After the Storm: What’s Next
Reporting is a top priority after a storm. Once back on-site, the manager and maintenance supervisor should do a full inspection of the property for damages and mechanical failures. This inspection should be recorded in writing and supplemented with photographs and/or video and a full report issued to the owners immediately upon completion.
Management should next communicate to all residents via email, text, or phone advising them of the property’s status and whether there are any storm-related dangers or concerns. This communication should be reviewed by owners and sent by management as soon as possible after the inspection.
Building management may want to consider activating a hotline for residents, to provide ongoing support and up-to-date information. Many of FirstService Residential’s team of 24/7/365 customer care specialists are well-versed in hurricane-preparedness strategies and policies and have often been a lifeline for displaced residents following natural disasters.
Don’t Forget About the Files
Most people tend to focus on physical structures as part of hurricane preparation, forgetting about intellectual assets. All property records and files should be backed up remotely, in the cloud or on a hard drive kept in another location or in a fireproof, waterproof safe on-site. (The latter is also an effective way to store hard copies of key documents.) Be sure to include building and facilities plans in case first responders, utilities, or insurance representatives need to reference them.
Something else to consider is having a list of all bank accounts and property signatories on hand, along with all branch locations. The property manager can help create a backup plan to have additional signatories should the primary ones become unavailable. Additionally, one owner should be designated to hold two signed checks in case contractors require payment immediately after a storm. Doing so will ensure the community has the resources it needs for emergency repairs while working through the insurance claims process.
For Next Time
Getting past a hurricane in one piece is the primary objective for all in its path. But once the storm subsides and recovery efforts are complete, the owners and property manager will need to reflect on what was done well, what could have been done better, and what investments or procedures are worth pursuing to strengthen the community for the next hurricane season.
To read our coverage of Hurricane Maria's devastation and the rebuild efforts underway in Puerto Rico, click here.