EARTH, WIND & FIRE: A Casebook of Natural Disasters

By Salustri, John | Journal of Property Management, May/June 2018 | Go to article overview

EARTH, WIND & FIRE: A Casebook of Natural Disasters


Salustri, John, Journal of Property Management


A safe, secure place to live and work is part of the Amcrican dream, and property managers are on the front lines of making that dream accessible. But what happens when nature intervenes?

In 2017, intervene it did, with hurricanes, floods and wildfires, all necessitating comprehensive, workable programs for minimizing disruption and hastening recovery. But no matter how inclusive a disaster recovery program may be, every situation is different, and as property managers themselves will explain, there are always lessons to be learned.

In the space of this article, it is impossible to cover every situation and provide a truly detailed guide to emergency preparedness. Luckily, IREM has already done that, in its comprehensive book, Before and After Disaster Strikes: Developing an Emergency Procedures Manual, now in its fourth edition (see sidebar on page 15).

In the meantime, here is a sampling of what fellow members experienced in the year past, and some advice they can share:

CASE NO. 1:

WILDFIRES SWEEP SONOMA COUNTY

For those who live east of the Rockies in California, wildfires seem to be an annual occurrence. Jeff Bosshard, CPM, would beg to differ. "We've been in business over 40 years, and we've dealt with fires where multiple units were involved. We've never experienced a wildfire like this."

Bosshard is president of multifamily operations at Woodmont Real Estate Services, AMO, in Belmont, Calif., managing 12,000 apartment units throughout Northern California and five million square feet of commercial assets.

In the early morning hours of October 9, 2017, Sonoma County came under surprise attack. With virtually no warning, wildfires erupted, "seemingly out of nowhere," according to the Washington Post. They rode the back of 60-mile-an-hour winds, so strong that flames traveling a reported 100 feet per second would leap the six-lane Highway 101 that runs through the county. In the ashen wake of the fires, at least 42 people died and more than 5,100 homes were destroyed.

Governor Jerry Brown would describe the crisis as "one of the greatest tragedies California has ever faced." In fact, California insurance commissioner Dave Jones reported in late January that insurance claims from the state's 2017 wildfires hit $11.8 billion-the most expensive series of wildfires in the state's history. Ten billion of that came from the Sonoma County fires.

The fires took their toll at Woodmont. Eight apartment communities and the regional corporate office were affected to one extent or another, with five of the apartment communities under mandatory evacuation and two out of the direct path of the fire's trajectory under voluntary evacuation. In all, 2,000 Woodmont residents were rendered temporarily homeless by the fires. Bosshard paints a surreal picture of "half-mile-long lines of fire trucks" rolling down the street and evacuation orders blaring through loudspeakers, all in the middle of the night.

Thankfully, no lives were lost, but one eight-unit apartment building was destroyed. "The other assets sustained smoke, glass or water damage," Bosshard recalls. By Woodmont's count, total damages, still not fully assessed, are estimated at $7.5 million.

So how do you prepare for the unforeseeable? "Obviously, it's important to have a plan in place for any type of disaster," he says. "We had a longstanding emergency-response plan. We think it's pretty comprehensive, but we learned some things from the wildfires." More on that in a bit.

The essentials of the plan are fairly straightforward. Woodmont has identified management-level personnel throughout its service areas who serve on the front line, charged with "going out and assessing each building during and after an incident," says the CPM. They also have established relationships with vendors that can service emergency needs. One such case in the midst of the fires involved air masks. "All the local stores were sold out. …

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