Plan Ahead to Avert Catastrophe from Natural Disaster
It is any site manager's worst nightmare—that moment when the phone rings to notify you that your world has been turned upside-down. The potential threats caused by natural hazards, such as hurricanes, wildfires, floods, winter storms, landslides, or earthquakes, happen more often than most people think. While a disaster occurring at your particular site may seem like a low probability, it is possible, and the impact on your site, staff, and residents can be tremendous. If your site is not prepared, there is little chance that you will be able to successfully manage through it.
“Wherever you are located, it is critical to have a plan to protect your asset and to help transition your residents,” says Sharon Harper Ivey, vice president of compliance for Concord Management Ltd. For Ivey, intense tropical weather systems are a reality of living in Florida, where the majority of her property portfolio is located. “Everybody probably has heard that we've had a hurricane or two in the past several years,” she says.
While some events can happen without warning, such as an earthquake, others like tropical or winter storms are more “trackable.” In either case, she says, “it is important that you have a pre-event plan, a during-the-event plan, and a post-event plan in place.”
Reach Out to Residents
Communication is critical during a disaster event. “Certain events will trigger mandatory evacuations, and the residents are going to look to the site management to help them know where to go and how to get there,” Ivey says. That can be especially difficult during this high-stress time when a site manager's attention can be divided among preparing the site, ensuring the staff's safety, and taking care of residents.
To ease the burden, prepare emergency message recordings and communications ahead of time so they can be quickly invoked. Make sure that all staff members know how to program office phones to forward to another number, and how to change messages on the office voicemail system on short notice. Use recorded greetings to inform residents of important developments and updates, and be sure to set up a voice mailbox with adequate space for overflow calls from staff, residents, and relatives.
Time is critical when a storm is approaching. Your disaster plan should include templates for notices and memos that can be easily populated with information, says Ivey. (See our Model Form: Create Templates for Emergency Preparation Notices, for an example of an Emergency Storm Preparation Notice.)
Establish an onsite support resource for emergency situations. Create a physical or virtual resource for residents who need assistance during emergencies, such as disabled or elderly residents. It also may be necessary to assign staff members to check on these residents to make sure that their units are secure, they have been removed from danger, or they are provided with the appropriate assistance, should they need to evacuate the property.
Check Your Options for Housing Displaced Residents
Where will residents go? Ivey recommends establishing a corporate account with a nearby hotel to temporarily house displaced residents. If your buildings are part of a multibuilding project, you can transfer displaced residents to unaffected units without recertifying them. However, if the buildings aren't part of a multibuilding project, transferring households without verifying eligibility could be another kind of disaster for your property.
If your site was not affected by the event, and the event is part of an officially declared disaster area, you may be allowed to house over-income displaced residents. Revenue Procedure 2007-54 (RP 2007-54) provides for temporary emergency housing relief for low-income residents who were displaced from their units due to a disaster occurring within a housing finance agency's jurisdiction.
The state agency will issue a memorandum that explains what the process is, how long the residents can stay, and what information needs to be in the file, says Ivey. Until that happens, “don't jump the gun,” she adds. “Unless your state agency has given you the appropriate guidance, you risk noncompliance.”
She points to a couple of recent severe floods in Florida as an example. Although the counties were declared disaster areas, the state agency chose not to make affordable housing available to displaced households due to the temporary nature of the displacement. In these cases, flood waters receded and people were able to return to their homes in a matter of weeks.
Prepare Your Staff
Getting your staff involved in disaster planning is a great way to prepare them for acting calmly and quickly during an emergency event. Make sure that you have a clear chain of command established, and identify who can take on which duties during an emergency. If critical staff members will be on site during a storm, provide good shelter and access to both primary and backup communications (cell or satellite phones, two-way radios, etc.).
Developing an emergency plan for handling your staff's personal and family responsibilities will help to ease their anxiety. Ask each individual to come up with his or her own emergency plan—for instance, designating someone who will be authorized and responsible for picking up children at school, etc. Site staff will feel better knowing that these issues are taken care of and will better be able to concentrate on their site responsibilities during an emergency situation.
What if your offices were destroyed? “Develop a plan for where you would relocate staff, how you would do that, how many computers you would need, what infrastructure needs to be set up, where it needs to be set up, and what you need to do to go out and support the properties,” says Ivey.
Here are three tips for preparing site staff for disaster events:
Make sure that site staff feel comfortable in their jobs on a day-to-day basis. That way, when there's a crisis, they'll be better able to handle the pressure.
Make sure that all site staff have ready access to disaster recovery information. Create guidelines for staff to follow, and make sure that it is accessible electronically and in hard copy.
Hold refresher training on disaster recovery procedures. Make sure that everyone is up to date with the plans, and that the key people know what those are.
Secure Your Site
Your disaster plan should provide maintenance staff with specific responsibilities to secure your buildings for a pending storm. For instance, take care to protect non-impact-resistant windows from flying debris by covering them with plywood. Garbage and refuse containers, pool and picnic furniture, chairs, benches, and anything that may take flight, should be moved to a secured area.
In the office, ensure that critical data has been backed up and stored at an alternate site away from the storm area. It's essential to identify all of the core processes that absolutely must be done to keep the site going. Take a hard look at what you must keep doing, and what you can let go of for a while.
Make sure that paper processes and resources are available and ready to be implemented should your data system crash. Consider not only your entire system being unavailable, but also a portion of the system. And be prepared to lose electrical, water, and sewer service.
Review and Update Your Plan Regularly
It is critical that your emergency management plans be reviewed and updated on a regular basis, says Ivey. “It's easy to create one and put it on a shelf. But you've got to take it out periodically and blow the dust off it. Update all the emergency phone numbers, and get everything organized, because you never know when a natural disaster will occur.”
Sharon Harper Ivey: Vice President of Compliance, Concord Management Ltd.; (407) 741-8595; Sharon.Ivey@ConcordRents.com.
Disaster Planning Checklist
Establish a disaster recovery team among your staff and assign responsibilities for specific tasks.
Prioritize your critical services and functions. What impact is an interruption likely to have on your site, residents, and staff? How quickly must each service and/or function be back up and running?
Make arrangements for a backup work site that staff can use should your offices suffer damage or become unusable.
Ensure that all household files and other critical paper documents are stored in a fireproof, crush-proof safebox. Important documents should also be scanned and stored at a separate location.
Create an inventory of equipment (e.g., office, maintenance, site).
Create a contact list of:
— Vendors, suppliers, and business partners
— Insurance provider
— Elderly or disabled residents
— Fire, police, and emergency medical services
— Telephone company
— Utility company
Set up a phone chain that specifies who contacts whom.
Plan for multiple methods of communication with employees and residents (Web site, cell phones, toll-free lines, etc.).
Develop an evacuation plan for each building in your site.
Create notice templates for communicating quickly with residents.
Make arrangements for emergency shelter for residents and staff.
Have a plan in place for pets that are left behind. Contact your local humane society for guidelines on pet safety.
Ensure that site staff know the locations of each building's exits, water and gas shut-off valves, fire extinguishers, emergency lighting supplies, battery-powered radios, building safety zones, and other equipment.
Make sure staff members know how to access the disaster plan.
Have a hard copy and electronic backup of the disaster plan.
Practice your disaster procedures. Hold regular rehearsals using various disaster scenarios, and assess the effectiveness of your plan.
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