The Natural Disaster Threat : How multifamily operators can prepare for increasing weather events and minimize loss.
Ask The Expert: Overcoming the obstacles to starting out in multifamily with Patrick Grimes and Sarah Hanna.
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Andrew Cushman had just refinanced his 151-unit Panama City, Florida, apartment complex when Hurricane Michael hit four years ago, pummeling the property with 155-mph winds and flying pine trees.
“The eyewall was directly over us,” Cushman says. “The property was heavily forested with pine trees, and those trees—every single one of them—came down. They sliced through the buildings like bread.”
While no one at the property was hurt, only 14 units remained operable. The property went from 100% occupancy to just 16% in a single day.
Cushman’s story is hardly unique. According to CoreLogic, major weather events impacted over 14.5 million single- and multifamily homes last year, causing almost $57 billion in property damage in the process.
It’s not slowing down either. The number of natural disasters has jumped fivefold in the last 50 years, according to the World Meteorological Organization, and, thanks to climate change, that trend’s only projected to continue.
As Tal Eyal, executive vice president of FirstService Residential New York, puts it, “Climate change, and the impact of larger, more unpredictable storms, is one of the biggest threats to new and existing properties.”
Fortunately, there are ways multifamily operators can prepare for these events and minimize their risk (and financial losses). Cushman, for example, was able to get his property restored and back to full capacity within just 18 months. And rents? Those are now up an average $249 per month.
Here’s what he and other experts say operators can do to ensure their stories are the same.
HOW TO RECOVER QUICKLY FROM A DISASTER EVENT
1. Call your insurer ahead of time, and alert them of an impending claim (if possible). This is particularly important if the event is a far-reaching one, which would cause insurers to get backed up with claims quickly.
2. Enlist a public adjuster. They can work with your insurance company and negotiate appropriate reimbursements for each line item your contractor recommends.
3. Arrange for contractors ahead of time. Ones located outside your region may have lower demand and have supplies more readily available.
4. Start cleanup work as soon as it is safe. This prevents extra damage from mold, mildew, etc.
5. Tap local resources and partners for assistance. They can help you on the ground and alleviate pressure on your staff.
Evaluate and Analyze
Every region is unique, so before operators can begin safeguarding their properties, they first need to know what they’re up against.
“Earthquakes, landslides, tornadoes, and hurricanes all tend to be regionally specific, so take note of which hazards are most likely to impact you based on where your properties are located,” says Nathan Miller, president and founder at Rentec Direct. “What are the potential vulnerabilities of your properties? ”
Eyal suggests doing a propertywide audit to pinpoint possible threats. “Identify any vulnerabilities to fire, weather, wind, and electrical disasters,” he says. “Using knowledge gleaned from buildingwide audits, boards and owners can make more informed decisions on how and where to invest their resources for capital improvements and facility upgrades.”
Keep Your Property in Good Condition
Maintaining the property and performing timely and to-code repairs is critical to minimizing damage year-round and, especially, during a major weather event.
“It can be tempting to delay maintenance in an attempt to reduce costs, but when a disaster hits, you’re going to face exponentially more costs than you would have ever saved,” says Patrick Grimes, CEO and managing partner at Invest on Main Street. “For example, during a windstorm, rotted and loose siding or shingles can be ripped free, becoming projectiles that can damage your property and nearby vehicles, and can even injure or kill people nearby. Old, cracked caulking can lead to water and wind getting into a building during a disaster, causing immediate damage, not to mention long-term mold issues later. And poor drainage can lead to flooding and foundation issues.”
If a storm (or storm season) is approaching, owners should pay particular attention to the roof and drainage systems.
“Make sure all drains are cleared in advance of a storm coming,” says Matt Resnick, director of project management for AKAM. “It’s also important to identify and repair any leaks that may occur via the building’s facade, roof, and windows.”
Stock Up on Supplies
Owners also will need to properly supply their buildings to deal with these events. This includes having basic emergency items on hand, like flashlights, glow sticks, batteries, radios, and first aid kits, as well as more specific items, like sandbags for areas where flooding is common or wood for boarding up windows in hurricane-prone areas.
“You’ll also want to have remediation equipment on hand,” Resnick says. “Equipment like air blowers, shop vacs to suck up water, and dehumidifiers are important to have access to before, during, and after certain disaster events.”
Finally, consider options for backup power. This might include investing in a generator or even something larger, like the Resilient Power Hub from Bright Power. The Commercial Real Estate Development Association calls it “emergency power that pays off.”
“The RPH is a combination of solar photovoltaic, battery storage, and co-generation, enabling it to provide emergency backup for elevators, pumps, lighting—critical elements needed to operate a building,” says Danielle Kyrios, Bright Power marketing manager. “It’s a mini microgrid that can operate as part of or independent from the utility grid, meaning in an emergency a building will still operate.”
Train Your Staff
Supplying your properties is just the first step, though. On-site staff members also need to know how to use and access those supplies and be trained in general disaster management skills.
According to Resnick, staffers should understand your emergency procedures and evacuation routes and be familiar with the property’s full layout. “Natural disasters aside, things like leaks, floods, and fires happen all the time,” he says. “It’s imperative to have your entire staff trained—not just resident managers—in disaster response and readiness, as well as recovery planning.”
Staffers also need to be ready to go the extra mile—distributing resources, working with the community, and communicating with tenants. Suzanne Abair is president and chief operating officer at Northland, which saw 11 of its 16 Austin, Texas, properties impacted by last year’s deadly winter storm. She says her teams did just that, even coming from out of state to help.
“Our teams worked 15-hour days sourcing and distributing water, providing heated areas and waste facilities, checking in on the safety of residents, and generally helping in any way possible,” she says.
Have a Communication Plan
Owners and staffers also need a clear-cut communication strategy, one that ensures tenants are both informed and taken care of every step of the way.
“Making sure residents are informed about approaching storms, directing them to the right recourses, and sharing plans before a storm hits ensure they bring to your attention any problems—building or otherwise,” says Jeff Klotz, CEO of The Klotz Group. “It’s common and natural to think about the physical property and its operations first, but one must also focus on its residents and our responsibility to ensure that they have a proper plan in place and can survive a disaster with the best outcome possible.”
At Klotz’s properties, a 24-hour emergency hotline before, during, and after any disaster event keeps tenants informed and ensures there’s someone to answer questions or provide help if needed.
Elie Rieder, founder and CEO of Castle Lanterra Properties, had properties impacted by Hurricane Dorian—a Category 4 storm—in 2019. He says communication was critical to minimizing damage and injury during the event. “We followed the path of the storm and were communicating with our property staff and residents to ensure that all necessary preparations were being carried out and contingency plans were ready to be deployed,” he says. “At properties where there may be mandatory evacuation orders, we printed backup reports of all files, backed up computer hard drives, unplugged electronics, updated phone lists, and contacted all elderly and disabled residents to offer support should there be a need for evacuation.”
REDUCING FIRE RISK IN MULTIFAMILY BUILDINGS
According to the National Fire Protection Association, almost 86,000 fires occurred in multifamily properties in 2020. These properties also accounted for 10% of all civilian fire deaths and 19% of all fire injuries.
Want to protect your properties and tenants from similar fates? Christopher Alker, vice president of building operations at AKAM, shares strategies:
1. Ensure properties have self-closing doors to prevent spread of fire.
2. Make sure all pathways are unobstructed. This includes eliminating welcome mats and shoes outside of an apartment door.
3. Distribute a fire escape plan to residents every year, and post clearly in a common area.
4. Ensure fire extinguishers throughout buildings are regularly inspected, tested, and charged.
5. Ensure there are no open electrical boxes, sockets, or fixtures.
6. Emergency lighting should be checked and tested regularly. Hallways filled with smoke have limited visibility.
7. Make sure all carbon monoxide and smoke detector batteries are changed annually, and devices are replaced every 10 years.
8. Any active equipment and electrical panels must be unobstructed and accessible.
9. If there are any combustible liquids in the building like paint, gasoline, etc., they should be stored in a noncombustible cabinet and should be only in the amounts as limited by code.
Have the Right Insurance
According to operators who’ve been through these events, insurance is the biggest piece of the puzzle and can heavily influence how quickly your building bounces back—and how much it costs to get it there.
“Adequate insurance can make a six- or seven-figure difference following storm-related damage,” Eyal says.
Just having insurance isn’t enough, though. It needs to be the right type of insurance—a full replacement value policy, experts say.
This is the type of policy Cushman had, and it covered all his repairs—a whopping 1,000 pages of them. A cash value policy (the cheaper alternative) wouldn’t have done so. Instead, these policies cover what the property is worth now, factoring in depreciation.
A loss of business income policy is crucial, too. These cover your lost rents while you repair the property and can be critical to staying afloat when you’re at critically low capacity.
Use an Adjuster
There’s also another insurance strategy that can help: using a public adjuster. These are professionals who negotiate with the insurer on your behalf and, according to Cushman, can make all the difference.
“If I had tried to negotiate with the insurance company myself, that would have been a nightmare,” Cushman says. “Just seeing the amount of work in negotiation he had to do with the insurance company, it would have been a full-time job, and I wouldn’t have spent any time on the rest of our business.”
Kenny Taylor is a longtime adjuster with The Greenspan Co./Adjusters International. He’s handled countless cases like these and says it’s critical owners have a pro on their side—especially when there’s extensive damage.
“It is easy to physically prepare for a disaster,” Taylor says. “The harder part is preparing for the disaster after the disaster—in other words, making sure that you are not a victim of an insurance company.”
An adjuster can also help you before a disaster hits, determining what insurance (and how much) to carry.
“Working with a disaster recovery team that includes a professional risk manager and a public adjuster, who can do modeling with your specific portfolio in mind, is my No. 1 recommendation,” Taylor says. “Multifamily owners and managers also need to make sure that they are checking their insurance coverages at least twice a year. Once a year is no longer enough; between COVID protocols and increased material and labor costs, the coverage you had a year ago will no longer be enough should disaster strike six months later.”
Build the Right Relationships
In addition to having a good adjuster on your side, operators say you need vendors and community partners, too, to help provide equipment, assist with cleanup, and help support residents in need.
“Before Hurricane Sandy made landfall, we had fair notice that a historic storm was approaching and worked around the clock with our managed properties to establish emergency contingencies, communicate those contingencies to building staff, and create a support network for residents who might need additional assistance or access to food and supplies,” Eyal says.
Having contractors and remediation specialists in your network also is crucial. When Hurricane Michael was nearing, Cushman was able to reserve a team of contractors from Atlanta. They arrived the next morning to begin cleanup. “I know getting contractors and supplies was challenging for many people,” he says. “We got ahead of it.”
Cash reserves are vital when disaster hits. Not only can they cover your deductible or any costs you incur before insurance kicks in, but they also ensure investors get their distributions in a timely manner while your property bounces back.
Grimes, whose property was hit by a tornado recently, recommends a six-month reserve.
“We always have a reserve of six months of operating expenses so that we are minimally affected by disasters or, frankly, any other scenario that impacts a property’s income, such as a market downturn,” he says. “We initially cover losses from our reserves and then replace that when the insurance company pays out our settlement. This increases our operating costs, but the added market resilience it creates for my company is a reasonable trade-off because our investors appreciate the stability.”
Assess and Reassess
Finally, operators need to assess and test their disaster strategies regularly.
“Emergency systems should be tested semi-annually to ensure proper operation of warning, communication, and building systems that are most at risk during a seasonal event,” Abair says.
After an event occurs, analyzing the property and staff response is important, too.
“We review what worked well, what we could do better, and what we need to change as events such as weather-related disasters intensify,” Abair says. “This type of debrief is a crucial part of the learning process to mitigate damage during future occurrences.”