Disaster 101: Emergency Preparedness in the Post-Sandy Building Industry

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When Superstorm Sandy hit the East Coast in October 2012, it became the second-costliest such event in U.S. history, following Hurricane Katrina. The destruction resulting from the storm not only changed the way New Jerseyans live – it also changed the way real estate developers do business.

Community Investment Strategies (CIS), a leading developer of affordable multifamily housing communities, was one of 12 affordable housing organizations in New Jersey and New York that received a grant from the Enterprise Community Partners to participate in its three-year Learning Collaborative for Multifamily Housing Resilience program aimed at recovering, rebuilding and reforming the way builders plan post-Sandy.

Since then, CIS, like many development firms and organizations affected by the storm, has analyzed its emergency preparedness efforts – and for good reason. Resiliency planning contributes to a company’s success. At CIS, our efforts reinforce our company’s reputation for providing a quality product, show that we are a conscientious developer that cares about residents and their ability to live successfully in their homes, and protect our sites because we are prepared for the worst.

Identifying the Need

Resiliency planning goes beyond anticipating and preparing for a natural disaster or an emergency situation. While many of the Learning Collaborative partners consisted
of public agencies and non-profit supportive housing groups, our challenge as a for-profit company was in distinguishing between CIS’ responsibilities as a landlord and the renters’ responsibilities as tenants.

One of CIS’ primary focuses during the initial days following Superstorm Sandy was to identify operational areas that we could modify to better meet both the company’s and residents’ needs in the future. When Sandy hit, many of the families living in our multi-family housing units faced the same challenges as those living in private, single-family residences: loss of power and/or heat, confusion about evacuation plans and insufficient emergency supplies.

A key component of any emergency preparedness plan should include identifying and addressing critical issues in a timely manner. For CIS, that response was two-fold: what actions needed to be taken to continue the company’s operations, and how could we address the unexpected influx of requests from the management side of our business?

As a result, CIS is developing community-oriented relationships with groups that provide emergency relief services. That way, if the need arises, there is already an established line of communication with local organizations to assist rental occupants.

We also evaluated our operational procedures to ensure we knew how to communicate if phones or email were inoperable, who was responsible for visiting each site to assess possible
damage and coordinate plans for repairs, and what was needed to return damaged buildings or properties to their functional state.

Taking Action

Successful developers must consistently evaluate their building design and construction practices. We found that some design elements that had been incorporated from an aesthetic
standpoint actually served a functional purpose in Superstorm Sandy’s aftermath – fireplaces in some multifamily buildings provided residents with necessary heat, so we have since begun
incorporating fireplaces into more of our buildings.

Other building practices to consider may include:

  • Electronic security controls: If the power goes out, these controls stop operating. In addition to providing residents with a manual way to override these controls should the electronic system stop functioning, builders should consider tying these systems into back-up generators.
  • Emergency lighting: Most battery packs that supply lighting in an emergency work for eight hours, but many buildings lost power for days following Superstorm Sandy. Consider supplying each of your buildings with backup battery packs or connecting these to generators for the emergency lighting systems.
  • Traditional construction techniques: Look beyond standard requirements and codes and brainstorm innovative ways to combine weather-barrier products to assist with the management of windblown rain or flooding.
  • Insurance coverage: Review and assess your insurance policies to ensure you have adequate coverage. Consider each property’s unique needs and adjust your plans accordingly.

Planning for a Prepared Future

As a developer in a post-Sandy world, we must become more conscious of development locations from an engineering and scientific modeling standpoint, especially as it relates to how we manage flood waters that may threaten our properties. Our company, like many others, is being proactive by building our properties higher or further above the flood elevation limits than the existing codes and regulations require.

Builders’ perspectives have changed, as well – no one expects to avoid damage completely during a natural disaster or unexpected event. We understand that environmental factors and emergency situations occur, but we can employ design and construction techniques to help minimize their damaging effects on our properties.

In a post-Sandy world, you can prepare for unexpected disasters by taking the following precautions:

  • Review your company’s emergency protocols.
  • Analyze your plan and identify any gaps.
  • Discuss emergency preparedness with others.

Promoting the importance of emergency preparedness will result in a community at large that is better-equipped to handle disasters – weather-related or not.

by Christiana Foglio