By Paul Votto, National Director of Housing Programs
As I write this article, our nation is still trying to recover from back-to-back-to-back disasters – two natural and one man-made. In the span of six weeks, we experienced two devastating hurricanes and the deadliest mass shooting in US history. While we grieve for those affected, we also have a professional responsibility to consider whether we would be prepared if a serious emergency impacted one of our properties.
In my career, I’ve had to deal with fires, suicides, accidental deaths, law enforcement interdictions, extended utility disruptions, blizzards, ice storms, hurricanes, flooding, and heat waves, to name but a few. Very few professionals who have managed for any length of time haven’t been confronted with some sort of crisis. Tornadoes, earthquakes, wildfires, and other natural disasters don’t skip over apartments. Fires, as we witnessed in a London public housing community earlier this year, can spread quickly and with horrendous results. And terrorism, even when it doesn’t occur directly in multifamily housing, can literally come to our doorstep if the perpetrators or their accomplices happen to be residents (as has been the case several times in the US and overseas).
I remember as a boy growing up in Miami in the late 50s/early 60s, my parents had a shelf in our utility room that we called the "hurricane shelf." It contained an assortment of canned foods (and a manual can opener; no pop-tops back then); flashlights, batteries, candles, hurricane lanterns, cans of Sterno for cooking, and other provisions. I recall our family using the supplies only two or three times over the course of 10 or 15 years, but my parents always made sure it was freshly stocked.
Today, as housing professionals, we need a hurricane shelf with a lot more on it. I don't mean a literal shelf (although in some cases, that is appropriate). I mean a well-thought-out plan for responding to any emergency that might occur. Here are just some of the things that should be considered:
- The plan should be in writing.
- The plan should anticipate the kind of natural disasters that could occur depending on the location of the property.
- Evacuation plans should be included.
- The plan should include emergency contacts with several backups internal to your organization. It should also include emergency contact numbers for all first responders, local resources (e.g. the American Red Cross), the utility companies, disaster recovery contractors, and the like.
- Everyone on the property and in the organization should know their respective roles and responsibilities.
- It is critical to appoint a spokesperson, in advance, to deal with the media. All others should be instructed not to answer any questions from the media but to simply refer questions to the appropriate party. And never, ever fall for the "off the record" line. Nothing is truly off the record. Remember, your first priorities are your residents, you and your staff, and the property. Communicating with the media is important, but it is best left to someone not on the front line of emergency management and someone who is properly trained for the function.
- Consult your property insurance agent in advance. Have them review your draft plan and make any suggestions both for the plan and what can be done in advance to mitigate potential hazards. Also, make sure you understand the terms of your coverage beforehand. Offering to pay for the hotel costs and other expenses of displaced residents and finding out later these expenses are not covered by the property’s insurance can be an unpleasant realization.
- The plan should include how you will communicate with residents. This means having updated contact information for the residents, including cell phones, email addresses and alternative contacts. You should also consider having a plan to use social media to get out important information.
- Local emergency response officials should be consulted. It’s a good practice to have them review your draft plan before you finalize it in case they have some important suggestions.
- Communicate the elements of the plan that your residents need to know before any emergency transpires.
- And finally, train your staff!
Let’s hope that all of us avoid having to deal with these sorts of events in the future. But if we do, let’s be prepared.
To further assist the field, in the coming months NCHM plans to offer a webinar on emergency response planning for apartment managers. We would greatly appreciate hearing from you about your experiences with emergencies and your suggestions for preparing for them. Email me at email@example.com with your thoughts. Your contribution may well save a life or protect a property from a costly disaster.