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From Plan to Action: Working Through Disaster

April 2021

Flexibility, resiliency and communication are key during large-scale emergencies.

Winter Storm Uri may be long gone, but the impacts are long-lasting. Texas was among the many places hammered with atypical amounts of snow, ice and below freezing temperatures in mid-February. However unusual, contingency and emergency plans are important to prepare for the potential threat and are vital to help the affected areas recover after it has passed.

“The comparison that I’ve been using to try to explain to our investors and to residents that I’ve had the opportunity to speak with about the scale of this is essentially the week of the freeze was like Hurricane Harvey hitting every city in Texas at the same time,” says Ian Mattingly, CPM, LUMA Residential, President and 2021 Apartment Association of Great Dallas President. “With the loss of water, the loss of power, the number of apartments that have been damaged significantly by this freeze, that is the only comparison that most people have that I think allows them to fully understand the scope of the challenge and what that means for us.”

Mattingly says there was enough time to make the appropriate preventative measures, but buildings in hurricane zones have standards to withstand, within reason, disasters and storms. Buildings across Texas, north Texas in particular, are not built to sustain subzero temperatures for multiple days in a row. Fire suppression systems were drained and communities were on fire watches to limit damages. The biggest impact was that the loss of power could not be accounted for during this time.

Several thousand apartment homes lost power with dripping water turning into icicles, and pipe breaks still occurred. “Even though we took the preventative measures, it just wasn’t enough, and then that was compounded by the fact that we have cities, because of the number of ruptures in their lines, actually coming out and shutting off meters,” Mattingly says. Some cities were shutting off water due to the drop in pressure, causing the dripping faucets to stop with water in the lines, ultimately leading to ruptured pipes.

Mattingly says they are in the final phases of their emergency response with the next objective being to start permanent repairs. “I think that’s going to take quite a bit of time. Just getting our buildings put back together and getting our residents back to the place that they need to be with flooring and ceilings and all the things that they expect from a quality apartment community.”

However, not all owners and operators are as lucky, as Mattingly says owners with smaller footprints might see challenges to gathering resources and materials—work on their communities through April.

Temporary repairs have been made and water has been restored, but there is a shortfall in resources and materials to make permanent repairs on apartment homes. Some residents have no carpet or have holes in their ceilings and walls.

Since materials are scarce—demand is high and supply is low—Mattingly is looking to go elsewhere to find drywall in bulk from out of state to make repairs once teams are able to get into homes.

Communicating Through Disasters

Every morning, Mattingly and his onsite teams have a shared spreadsheet available to document the daily plan. This includes checking if residents have water, fire suppression systems are restored and residents have been successfully relocated until their homes are accessible again.

Communicating with residents is also key during disasters. They need to know what has been done and what is still in the process of being completed or planned. “That’s really important to managing expectations,” he says.

One of the most important aspects of crisis communication is to realize what has been done during the previous 24 hours and having that communicated to residents. Some of Mattingly’s communities are sending out communications via text and email multiple times per day.

Communication between contractors to coordinate repairs is just as important. Having an open line of communication is critical to know if contractors have the materials they need or if a product was received out of state from another contractor or supplier, knowing that it will take time to get materials where they need to go. 

“In a perfect world, it would have been great to have been able to go apartment by apartment and make sure our residents were fully educated on the importance of keeping their thermostat at a certain level and that it’s not enough to drip water in the kitchen,” says Mattingly. “If we had a month’s warning, maybe we would be able to do that, but even in that case, there were certainly some things that were simply design issues.”

Spirit of the Industry

“Our team has really risen to the occasion even ahead of the storm,” Mattingly says. Teams were volunteering to leave their families, knowing what they signed up for during this incoming storm—sleeping in vacant apartments on cots waiting for the storm to hit. “I think it really started even before the storm with just people being willing to put this industry and the families that we support first.”

Michael Miller is Managing Editor for NAA.