As seen in Condo Media Magazine January 2013
By Matthew Daniele

Before Hurricane Sandy struck the east coast of the United States everyone thought that they would weather the storm with relative ease, just like they had in all previous “nor’easters”. Homeowners purchased plenty of food, water and batteries and then hunkered down and luckily fared pretty well. Upon reading a blog written by Daniel Roth who lived in a high rise community affected by Hurricane Sandy, it raised the important question of how prepared are we and can this happen to us?

This is an excerpt from his blog:

The river water merged with the sewage water and the streets turned into a deep strong current in the blink of an eye. Minutes later, the fire alarms in our building went off, blaring: ‘A fire has been reported on your floor. Evacuate the building.

In a controlled panic, we hastily grabbed our two dogs and whatever we could throw into a bag and met our neighbors rushing back down into the lobby. By this point, the lower portion of the lobby was filled with 3+ feet of water, quickly rising towards the raised section that we had gathered in. With no place to go and rumors spreading about the source of the fire, a firefighter accompanied by our maintenance staff entered the front door, informing us that the fire alarm was triggered by the fire panel being underwater. Thankfully, there was no fire, and we barely noticed that they were standing in water over their knees. The bad news was that there was no way to shut off the piercing alarm and strobe lights…the rest of the night. Minutes later, the entire town went pitch black on the other side of the street, with only strobe lights flashing in the dark, adjacent buildings. Our building went dark a few moments later. Finding no refuge from the noise in our apartment, we joined our neighbors in the hallway, which was lit by emergency lighting. This was the silver lining, as they always say. We grabbed our dogs, bottles of wine, and go-bags and moved to the 10th floor, where a neighbor announced that there was no fire alarm sounding from her floor upwards. Sitting on the hallway carpet, camping chairs, and tailgating coolers, we chatted for hours under the fluorescent lights with no windows and no view of the rising waters flowing through our lobby, covering our entire town. We were elevator acquaintances hours earlier, but at that moment, we became friends and the storm became a secondary topic. A few of us glanced at Facebook and Twitter from time to time, realizing that true gravity of the storm”

Mr. Roth’s experience was extreme, but one that could have affected many New England Community Associations. Could we have done anything more to better prepare ourselves for such a disaster?

For areas like New England, not known for many natural disasters, our emergency plans are not prepared for the damage of Hurricane Sandy’s magnitude. More than just the occasional first aid kit tucked away in a closet somewhere, abstract preparations are extremely necessary. Flood insurance, window barriers, and knowing how to shut off utilities are just a few of the strategies that must be considered beforehand.

Contingency plans need preparation.

Although key areas of focus for trustees and managers alike include association governance, managing capital, and maintaining facilities, the ability to lead during contingencies is the where the marks of true leadership lie.

At any given moment, a contingency like fire or flood can occur without warning. Because of how community associations are arranged, they are extremely vulnerable to these unforeseeable destructive events if only because individual residences are invariably located in close physical proximity to one another.

Fires ignite, pipes burst, and windstorms tear away roofs and siding. In these events, proper action must be taken with clear purpose, direction and timeliness. Hesitation and delay become exponentially more costly the longer they take.

Create a Master Plan.

By creating a master contingency plan with a directory of relevant information, including build/installation dates, useful life cycles, control locations and operation characteristics, property use and security will be better utilized. In compiling and distributing the following relevant information among  association trustees, property owners and managers, common knowledge of systems, locations and cautions becomes part of the defense in the event of an unanticipated emergency or disaster.

  • Know the building layout. Identify the location and operation of primary water, electrical, fuel, and all electronic communications connections, HVAC and related control points and shutoffs for all buildings. Clear identification of location and use on a master schematic and inventory list will ensure trustees, managers, security staff and vendors are sufficiently familiar with their operation to be able to act effectively in an unanticipated event.
  • Create a comprehensive vendor master list. Maintain, update and distribute a vendor master list for your property, including plumbing, electrical, energy supply, roofing and carpentry. A qualified public insurance adjuster should also be included. A contact list of specialty vendors and support organizations should also be compiled and distributed, including flood abatement, locksmith, elevator repair, local police and fire, American Red Cross, local hotel/motel facilities (in the event occupancy is foreclosed by a contingency event), and municipal authorities.
  • Publish emergency police and fire numbers for everyone to see.
  • Contact information for the president and executive committee in the event a property belonging to a community association, including specific “In Case Of Emergency” names and numbers.

Management Company, on-site personnel, including concierge, superintendent and management office telephone numbers and email addresses.

  • Make sure all contact information for the occupants living in your association is up to date, especially their email addresses, and cell and home telephone numbers. As Mr. Roth’s blog showed, the homeowners had to resort to Facebook and Twitter to find out what has happening outside of their building.But what about what was happening in their building? A good idea is to have a community web page where information can be disseminated to everyone during and after disaster. This would greatly alleviate many of the questions and concerns homeowners would have. Spreading information is the most essential tool.
  • Undertake a property survey at least once annually to identify vulnerable plumbing, freezing or water penetration locations, new system installations or the progress of life cycles/replacement schedules (for roofs, boilers, pumps, security and other high-use/high-stress systems). This will improve the continuity of operations vital to the long-term, reliable occupancy of your property.

For property owners and managers, creating a contingency plan for any kind of emergency will ultimately save you time and money all the while ensuring safety for the homeowners, employees and tenants. Creating a comprehensive and customized plan will help you asses any contingency and duly establish restoration procedures, while ensuring your condominiums can endure any threat nature throws at you.

While condominium life in the United States, especially New England, particularly isn’t known for extreme climates, the passage of time, the ravages of nature and human error all require continual oversight.

Recognizing contingency planning as one of the most vital tasks of leadership and creating appropriate internal procedures in response to these unexpected disasters, even ones as uncommon and extreme as Sandy, is absolutely critical to sustaining the life and comfort of any community.