Lessons Learned: Step-by-Step Preparation for Hurricane Season

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By Wendy Annunziata

           

At the Mission Springs Apartments, Hurricane Irma toppled trees, damaged roofs, and opened up a car-sized sinkhole about seven feet from a resident’s front door when it blew through Jacksonville last September. Months later, there were still some tarps on the roofs at Mission Springs, which has 444 apartments, but Irma was mostly a bad memory — one that left community manager Sharon Steffen with a firm goal for this year’s hurricane season: Get a generator.  

After the storm, the community — like many throughout the state — lost power.

“From now on,” Steffen said, the community will have an office generator so that staffers can run computers and phones and perhaps provide residents with a cold bottle of water from a mini fridge or a place to charge their cell phones.

“We hadn’t been hit for many years, and Irma was a wake-up call,” said Tammy Tollinchi, regional manager for the Lynd Co., which manages Mission Springs.

Several managers of other Florida apartment communities said they also plan to equip their front offices with generators from now on.

That was one of many tips they and others offered as Florida prepares for the start of another hurricane season — one that is expected to be busier than normal, meteorologists say.

One thing that experts agree on is that hurricane planning is best done in stages — and those stages need to begin before the season begins.

 

Before hurricane season

 

            Although the season doesn’t officially begin until June 1, apartment communities should be looking now for companies that can assist them in both preparation and cleanup, experts said.

            “Start researching contractors that specifically specialize in restoration-type work,” said Ben Zeigler, account executive at SweetWater Restoration, based in Jacksonville. “Build relationships with them.”

            Jonathan Finch, director of business development at Rapid Response Team, based in Pompano Beach, agreed.

 “Establishing agreements with providers ahead of time is key,” he said. “Property owners and managers sometimes don’t set up these agreements,” and that can cost valuable time after a storm.

            “After Irma, we didn’t do any work for people that we didn’t already have relationships with,” said Zeigler. “We either turned them down or we said, ‘Look, we have to take care of these other clients first.’ ”

Many restoration companies have disaster response programs that clients can join. Here’s how most programs work: Apartment managers or owners sign an agreement — “sort of like a loose contract,” Zeigler said — that says the restoration company will step in to help both before and after a storm, as needed. There are no upfront fees. In most cases, the companies are compensated for their cleanup and repair work through the amount settled with an owner’s insurance company.

            The programs vary, but generally, once an agreement is signed, the restoration company may inspect properties to point out any potential storm hazards, come up with customized disaster plans, offer staff training and provide other services, such as supplying tarps or generators. The companies usually have warehouses filled with the types of supplies — lumber, dehumidifiers, cleaning materials — that are most needed after a storm hits, too.

The agreements — which usually cover other types of disasters as well, including fires and water damage — can offer peace of mind to management companies.

            Tracy Williams, regional vice president at Carroll Management Group in Jacksonville, said Carroll signed on with SweetWater. She recommends that management companies who want to join a disaster response program look for “people who are involved in their local apartment associations, someone who has a history in the area.”

            “Ben [Zeigler] took me to their warehouse so that I could see their equipment,” Williams said. “So I had full confidence in their ability to mobilize after a disaster.”

           

When hurricane season begins

            June is a good month to inspect your property to look for possible hurricane hazards — and perhaps throw a party.

            Experts suggest making a checklist for both buildings and landscaping. Check buildings for any roof damage or loose or missing shingles or tiles. Check windows for any cracks or missing panes, and make sure windows and glass sliding doors close properly, since even a small gap can lead to major damage with the driving wind and rain of a hurricane. As for landscaping, the key to minimizing hurricane damage is to trim or remove trees — and not just oak trees.

            “Usually, the first trees to snap in a hurricane are pine trees,” said Shane Schanstra, owner of Sunset Bay Landscaping in Lutz, north of Tampa. With their tall, lean profile, and “very hard wood, they can bend, twist and break” quickly in a storm, he said.

            Oak trees sometimes have a hidden danger: deadwood stuck in their canopies. These decayed or broken branches — which can weigh 75 pounds or more — can do major damage during a hurricane and even be deadly, Schanstra said.

            Palm trees should also be checked so that loose fronds can be removed, said Finch of Rapid Response Team. “Palm fronds can act as sails [when caught in the wind] and go flying or cause the tree to fall over,” Finch said.

The start of the season is also the best time to stock up on supplies. Several community managers said they put together a box of supplies for the front office. The box includes: batteries, flashlights, walkie-talkies, a first-aid kit, duct tape, bottles of water, garbage bags, gloves, and rain gear. They also print out a rent roll — a list of all of the residents and their contact information — and a list of their regular vendors, such as landscapers and plumbers.

If their community’s hurricane plan calls for boarding up the front office, they make sure the plywood boards and the tools to install them are on-site as well.

Most community managers said they also post notices — on bulletin boards, through email or on their community’s Facebook page — alerting residents that hurricane season has begun and advising them to put together a hurricane kit of their own, including batteries, flashlights, and other supplies.

Zeigler of SweetWater Restoration said a good way for community managers to raise residents’ awareness of the start of hurricane season is to throw a party to mark the occasion.

“Have a food truck or other refreshments,” he said, and use the opportunity to let residents know that the community is prepared.

“Let them know you have a plan and that they’re part of it,” he said. For instance, let residents know that if a storm starts heading their way, they can help by bringing their patio furniture indoors and making sure the front office has up-to-date contact information for them.

 

As a hurricane approaches

            Once it becomes clear that an apartment community might be in the path of a hurricane, communication is key to minimizing the impact of the storm. Because the path of a storm can shift, experts suggest keeping a close eye on weather reports. If it looks as though a community is going to be hit, experts suggest the following guidelines:

            Within 72 hours — or three days — of the storm’s expected arrival:

  • Communicate with residents. Post notices around the property and send emails or texts to let them know how the community will respond to the storm. If an evacuation order has been issued for the area, include information about nearby shelters, and encourage residents to heed the order. Also let residents know whether the staff may evacuate.

“Ultimately, it’s their [residents’] decision whether to evacuate,” said Kristen Johnson, a district manager for Carroll Management Group and the property manager at Arium Gulfshore in Naples. Naples is about 20 miles north of Marco Island, where Irma made landfall as a Category 3 storm with maximum sustained winds of 115 mph, acording to the National Hurricane Center.

Arium Gulfshore, which has 368 apartments, sustained about $2 million in landscaping, roofing, and other damage, Johnson said. The staff evacuated before the storm, and so did about 70 percent of the residents, she said. But some residents insisted on staying.

“We asked that they please let the office know [if they were staying] so that we knew which units to check first, upon our return,” to make sure everyone was all right, Johnson said.

  • Double-check the community’s stock of supplies. Are there enough batteries and flashlights? If heavy rain is expected, are there sandbags? Does someone on staff know how to work the generator? Is there fresh fuel for it?
  • Start moving items indoors. Ask residents to remove all furniture and other items from their patios.
  • Find a storage spot for pool furniture. Since many communities have lots of bulky pool furniture — lounge chairs, tables, and umbrellas — moving it can take awhile, so find a storage area, usually a clubhouse or an empty apartment, and be ready to move it if needed.

“People used to just throw it into the pool,” said Zeigler of SweetWater Restoration, “but it can damage the pool’s surface.”

  • If the forecast calls for heavy rain, drain some water out of the pool and pump some water out of any retention ponds or decorative ponds on the property.

“If they’re expecting a foot or more [of rain], drain it [the pool] a foot or so," said William Arbogast, owner of Greater Quality Pool Service in Tampa.

As for ponds, “if you can lower the water by just five feet or three feet, that helps a lot to prevent flooding into the units,” said Zeigler.

  • Touch base with contractors and others. Communities should contact the landscapers, plumbers, building contractors, and others who regularly work on the property to let them know their help may be needed after the storm. Apartment communities that have disaster response agreements with restoration companies should check in with them for any last-minute advice or supplies.

Within 24 hours of the storm’s arrival:

  • Notify residents if the community has decided to evacuate the staff and board up the front office. If it looks as if there is a good chance of flooding, move all computers and other equipment off the floor before boarding up.

Usually, the front office and perhaps the clubhouse are the only buildings boarded up during a hurricane, community managers said. Boarding up the apartments themselves would take too much time and be too costly, they said.

“But if it’s going to be a direct hit, we would board up the office because there’s so much information in that office,” said Tollinchi of the Lynd Co.

  • To account for any last-minute changes, print out a copy of the community’s most up-to-date list of residents and their contact information.
  • If an evacuation order is in effect for your area, tell residents — through emails, texts or the community’s Facebook page — that you will notify them when it is safe to return.
  • Move all pool furniture indoors.
  • If heavy rain is expected, turn off your pool’s pump and motor.

“If that equipment goes under water [while it’s on] or there’s a lightning strike, it can short out or go bad,” resulting in thousands of dollars in repair and replacement costs, said Arbogast of Greater Quality Pool Service.

  • And last but not least, tell residents that if they are going to evacuate, they must empty out their refrigerators first. Several community managers said that on top of all of the other problems brought by Irma, they were confronted with one that was easily preventable — the stench of rotting food when they re-entered apartments that had been evacuated and without power for days.

“We gave residents a checklist [of hurricane procedures], and removing stuff from the fridge was on it,” said Paula Cook, vice president of operations for Balfour Beatty Communities, which manages NAS Key West Homes in Key West. The rental community of apartments and homes sits on Naval Air Station Key West and was evacuated before Irma made landfall about 20 miles east. After the hurricane, community managers and recovery workers found downed trees, damaged roofs, ripped-off siding — and spoiled food inside mildewy refrigerators.

“We need to make that [emptying the fridge before evacuating] a top priority,” said Cook. “We definitely need to emphasize that more.”