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Don't Let Your (No) Disaster Plan Be a Failed Plan!

disaster planning
January 2020

For many apartment communities, disaster plans are like a spare tire. You probably have one, but you hope that you’ll never have to use it. And if you don’t have one, it’s already too late by the time the trouble arrives.

With the rising propensity of wildfires, hurricanes and other natural disasters, onsite teams can never be too prepared. But oftentimes even the best, most detailed emergency plans are shoved by the wayside amidst the chaos of an actual disaster. Three individuals who have navigated through multiple disaster events took the time to share their wisdom and address common misconceptions at the session “Don’t Let Your (No) Disaster Plan Be a Failed Plan!” at NAA’s Apartmentalize.

“It can happen to anyone, anywhere,” said Chris Wharton, an experienced international first responder and Founder of Basecamp Expeditions/Commandscope. “And you can prepare for them identically, because they all leave a similar trail of devastation.”

Vanessa Siebern, Vice President of FPI Management, has endured two sets of California wildfires during the past few years. She knows that residents will expect you to have all the answers, even when answers haven’t yet arrived. She underscored the need to pass along as much information as possible via email blasts and links to reputable sources such as FEMA and Red Cross. Plenty of misinformation circulates during a disaster and can cause further chaos.

“Make sure to practice your communication tactics ahead of time or you could end up wasting valuable time,” said Sibern, who has gone to the lengths of removing automated posts that promote something like a Taco Tuesday during a disaster. “And remember—your team members are victims, too. Be compassionate and empathetic to them, as well. Set reasonable goals and expect them not to be met.”

While adjusting on the fly is necessary in almost all cases, the panel drove home that a disaster plan is a must, even if it’s in a three-ring binder. All community management personnel should know where the plan is located, how to access it and to have an emergency contact list readily available. While that might seem apparent enough, many unprepared community teams have been left scrambling for this key information.

Wendy Werner, Regional Manager of Arbor Properties, has been through three hurricanes in her time with the company. She recommends that onsite teams practice “disaster role play” to prepare, and to consider using text communication during a disaster because bandwidth is often overextended during these events and texts have a greater chance to get through. She also warned that the aftermath lasts longer than many realize.

“The biggest misconception is that things go back to normal quickly,” Werner said. “Your problems don’t disappear just because there is no longer any media coverage.”

Additional recommendations included learning to speak Incident Command Center (ICS) language to better communicate with first responders, to keep an old-fashioned key log in case the key system is compromised and to be aware of price gouging from opportunistic vendors in the aftermath of a tragedy.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway amidst a disaster event: “Focus on life safety, not property loss,” Wharton said. “Property can be replaced.”