How to Prepare for Natural Disasters, Pandemics and Other Crises
Art Disasters

By Barbara Ballinger |

9 minute read

Staff and residents look to a building’s management for protocols, communication and leadership. 

If there’s one lesson that the past few years has taught multifamily developers, owners and managers, it’s that you can never be too prepared. 

So much havoc has been visited upon resident and staff lives as well as with building infrastructures and apartment operations from various catastrophes. Category 5 hurricanes with 157-mile-per-hour-plus winds have brought flooding; giant snowstorms, ice and hail have knocked out power; fast-spreading wildfires have destroyed buildings and acreage; and of course, a pandemic that has upended feelings of normalcy. 

 Although social media is criticized for spreading untruths, several of its platforms and related communication tools help managers and employees stay in touch with one another and with residents and suppliers so all can act quickly. Having protocols in place makes it easier for residents to exit their buildings fast rather than debate what to do. Suppliers should also know far ahead of crises what to deliver, possibly stacks of ventilators, masks, hand sanitizer, toilet paper and even hazmat suits, if another wave of cases emerges.

 Besides the type of crisis, also affecting an owner and manager’s decisions on what to do and when are the size of a building, its location, when it was constructed (as building codes have changed) and even the resident demographic, especially if older and more dependent on others for help. “The overall goal is not to have a lapse in offering services and providing safety,” says Louie Colella, Vice President of Leasing and Operations at St. Louis-based developer and investor CRG. “Doing what’s right helps set one building apart from another rather than having it be a building that people choose to ignore.”

 David Lynd, CEO of The Lynd Group, a San Antonio-based developer and manager, concurs and adds, “Natural disasters and recessions should not be something you fear as an apartment operator. These events provide an opportunity to demonstrate your character and display your values.”

The following are nine steps to help prepare for multiple challenges. 

1. Build and remodel smarter. Building codes have gotten stricter, and some developers and owners take extra precautions by going beyond what’s required. At its three-year-old Clippership Wharf apartments building in Boston Harbor, Lendlease Americas, an owner and manager, did extensive climate change assessment early in the design process. 

 “We wanted the structure to last for the next 100 years,” says Sara Neff, Lendlease’s Head of Sustainability. “The building is elevated high above sea level and on high stilts and there’s good egress that’s above the water level if there’s a disaster.” The building also incorporates redundant energy systems in each of its four towers rather than one central system, has elevated mechanicals and a living shoreline that extends into the water to dissipate waves. Other Lendlease buildings have systems tailored to local conditions such as additional cooling capacity in Los Angeles. Staff has also been trained to shut off systems. And all its newer buildings are moving away from natural gas toward electrical systems to reduce carbon emissions.

2. Annually check building infrastructure. When Levi Kelman’s Clifton, N.J.-based Blue Onyx Companies buys a building, it carefully assesses its condition and takes inventory of mechanical systems before designing a plan to keep all in shape and replace parts based on anticipated shelf life and compliance with what local codes and insurance carriers’ requirements dictate. “Many areas are adding requirements to prevent problems such as New Jersey’s proposed regulations in response to Hurricane Ida and increased major floods,” Kelman says. “The state is seeking to raise its minimum height for flood elevation two feet above what had been the approved level for flood plain hazard areas.”

Charlotte, N.C.-based property management firm RKW Residential has a daily preventive maintenance checklist, says Johnny De La Espriella, Senior Vice President. “In our process, we inspect all major equipment to ensure they are being maintained appropriately and working at their optimal level,” he says. “We use a technology platform to help our teams complete these seamlessly on an app while they are out walking the property doing these daily checkpoints.”

3. Have essential tools and supplies on-hand. Natural and man-made disasters often occur without warning. Most companies have learned it’s essential to have tools, supplies, first-aid kits on hand and have someone on staff or access to someone who knows how to use them such as portable heaters and generators if power or gas gets cut, says Kelman. “We learned to keep better inventory early on after a flood occurred in Patterson, N.J.,” he says. He has also learned this is particularly true in the dead of winter when extremely cold and in summer when very hot.

4. Know what natural disasters are most likely to occur and seek to build relationships with local experts. Even though Florida may be known for hurricanes and floods and Southern California for earthquakes, unexpected disasters occur. A 5.8-magnitude earthquake rattled Virginia in 2011. Wildfires have increased and sometimes burn in unexpected locations, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Besides heeding advice of national experts, seek to tap local resources that can help fine-tune protocols, Kelman says. For example, architect Rocky Berg, AIA, of three, a Dallas-based national architecture firm, has advised residential owners and operators on a range of needs from building atop stilts in Houston’s bayou because of flooding, to being sure glass in Florida buildings can withstand high winds and the impact of flying projectiles like roof tiles, to installing generators above possible tidal surges. 

 While locating emergency generators and the associated fuel storage facilities at grade has been a common practice, for a community in Ft. Myers, Fla., Berg’s firm recommended locating these on the third floor and out of harm’s way, he says. “These redundant power systems are critical in the case of widespread power outages,” he says. “In our planning, we talk with our clients about strategies for safe harbor, which includes bunkering, emergency power and water, as well as escape routes with the local protective services.”

5. Fine-tune communication channels. Communication is key, says Holly Casper, Director of Asset Management at Sands Companies in Myrtle Beach, S.C. “We want there to be continual touchpoints and follow-up in the form of daily recaps to keep the lines open for residents as well as employees,” she says. 

The key to all intense situations where loss of life is possible is communication that is clear and concise. “In the absence of communication, all human beings automatically default to the worst possible outcome,” Casper says. 

Each company has its own method and timetable, but most use a variety of methods such as mass emails, texts, phone calls and notices slipped under doors and posted, as different demographics have different preferences, says Kelman. Another reason is that just because texts or emails have been sent that doesn’t mean all residents received them, he says. Blue Onyx also has an emergency phone tree in place as well as a 24/7 answering service that has a live person on call throughout the night who can reach the right
staff member. 

Kelman also advises managers have contact information for essential emergency personnel in their community. Since residents may need to vacate the building, it’s key building managers know how to contact local shelters and hotels to help residents.

RKW Residential relies on a resident app to stay in touch with residents via email and text messages, as well as traditional ways such as fliers in high traffic areas, says De La Espriella. “Residents have preferred methods of communication and we want to be sure we are utilizing various ways to communicate with them,” he says. “Residents want communication in real time, especially in those situations when they had to evacuate the property due to a weather or emergency event.” 

Can there be information overload? Colella’s firm takes the view that people can unsubscribe if they feel they receive too much and too often. His firm works to be concise. Lynd’s firm also prefers to over-communicate, which it views as helping to build confidence in its brand. When a freeze in Texas left many without power, his firm regularly relayed information from the local utility company through texts and let residents make appointments through building staff to take hot showers at its other properties that had power. It offered vacant units that had gas heat, informed residents of information about road closures and what grocery stores were open.  

6. Use staff to maximum advantage. To do so requires good training and keeping them safe, says Colella, whose firm took precautions during the pandemic to be sure employees remained healthy while performing their jobs. “We split them into teams and alternated teams, so if one person got infected, they wouldn’t infect others. We always had a safety net,” he says.

7. Remain flexible. “We have emergency preparedness plans in place at all properties and we review these with our teams throughout the year,” says De La Espriella. “At the same time, out-of-the ordinary events will occur and unravel even with the best laid out plans. Monitoring the situation and remaining flexible to adjust the plan timely if needed is certainly important.”

Lendlease learned to use ventilation systems to reduce the transmission of viruses without overusing electricity, Neff says. “We got smarter about balancing air quality and electricity.” 

8. Keep residents engaged. Because of the widespread feelings of isolation triggered by the pandemic, many managers worked to engage residents by developing virtual programming in the beginning and later in-person, socially distanced activities, sometimes outdoors. Over time, many companies learned what classes appealed versus those that didn’t with each resident cohort. Programming lessons could be used during other crises, as well. 

At Clippership Wharf, management launched an outdoor concert series with live streaming that was very popular for residents and the neighborhood, says Neff. “The majority of the events were virtual or outdoors such as yoga classes, virtual paint nights with provided art for the kids and grab-and-go treats,” she says.

9. Secure vacant buildings from unauthorized entry. Thieves and vandals may try to enter a property if a disaster forces an exit or if a new building is not yet occupied. It’s up to management to secure the community. A variety of ways are typically deployed. 

During the design/construction process, CRG makes sure vulnerable areas are well illuminated and have viewpoints for a camera system. Kelman’s company uses different protective measures depending on location, condition of the building and property type. One tactic is plywood to secure all entrances and windows that are within reach from a sidewalk, or in some cases metal screens. In addition to physical barriers, the firm employs a mobile burglar alarm system with central station monitoring to alert the police of any unauthorized entry. In some cases, cameras with remote access are utilized along with fencing around a property’s perimeter. Other sources suggest starting or joining a neighborhood watch group.

Know that protocols most likely won’t please everyone—staff, residents, suppliers—all the time when a crisis or disaster occurs. However, the goal is to try to do your best. “As long as you’re happy with your course of action, you’ve probably done the right thing,”
Lynd says.


Barbara Ballinger is a frequent contributor to units.