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When Disaster Hits, Remember Compassion

By Les Shaver

It’s hard to cover every base when disaster strikes, but there are things you can do to help your residents and staff through the turmoil. Here are some tips from professionals who’ve lived through it.

When a disaster strikes your apartment community, people often assume things will return to normal quickly afterward. But after having lived through Hurricanes Katrina and Michael, Wendy Werner, Regional Manager for Arbor Properties, says that’s not the case.

“It really takes a long, long time,” Werner said at the “Deep Dive: Don’t Let Your (No) Disaster Plan Be a Failed Plan!” session at Apartmentalize this past June in Denver. “It took nine months after the storm before we opened even one building. We still have two properties that are shut down.”

While post-disaster recovery can be a long, arduous process, proper preparation can help apartment operators assist their residents in a time of need.

“I see people constantly who aren’t prepared,” says Chris Wharton, Founder of Basecamp Expeditions. “People think it won’t happen to them.”

Wharton says operators must develop a disaster plan and share it with their residents. “The best thing you can do is train and role-play for natural disasters,” he says. “Train [your team] more than once a year. It builds muscle memory and confidence.”

When a disaster does hit, realize that information that was once easily accessible may be hard to get at. “Your emergency contact information needs to be printed out at your home,” says Vanessa Siebern, a Vice President at FPI Management. “You’re going to need it.”

Hurricanes and fire destroy cell towers and phone lines, making communication nearly impossible. Because of that, it’s important to have someone out of harm’s way who can connect with displaced residents. “You need someone who’s remote to answer residents’ questions at 2 a.m. when they don’t know what to do,” Werner says.

Preparation is important, but so is compassion. “Your residents are devastated after a disaster,” Werner says. “In four hours, their life has changed completely. They need to see you when something happens. Sometimes, they just need a hug.”

Siebern also says it’s important to be there for residents and their questions even if your answer is, “I don’t know.”

“The residents expect you to have the answers, and sometimes you don’t,” she says.

A calm voice can also help in these times. “It’s important to stay calm, because you’re helping people who want answers,” Werner says.

Some residents may want to pitch in to help with the recovery. When they do, accept their help but also capture their ID and have them sign a waiver. “Residents who volunteer are indispensable,” Wharton says. “Treat them well.”

Dealing with anguished, emotional residents can be hard on your onsite teams, who may be dealing with their own personal losses.

“We have to support our teams,” Siebern says. “Residents are coming in in their pajamas because they have nowhere to live, and staff are helping them. [But] helping them takes a toll.”

Wharton agrees. “Remember, your staff are victims too,” he says. “You have to have a plan in place to care for your staff.”