In 1918, a strain of influenza called the “Spanish Flu” was responsible for the death of up to 40 million people around the world, including an estimated 500,000 Americans.  The Spanish Flu was a pandemic Flu, meaning that it was a global outbreak of Flu among humans.  Historically, pandemic Flu has broken out every 10-50 years; the most recent was in 1968, when approximately one million people worldwide lost their lives.

A pandemic Flu is distinct from the Seasonal or “Common” Flu, a viral infection that occurs most frequently in the winter.  Avian Flu, which has been making headlines lately, is a Flu virus that is deadly to birds, and can be transmitted to humans.  While no cases of Avian Flu have been documented in humans outside of Asia, it has been found in migratory birds in 16 countries on several continents, raising serious concerns that it could spread.  Avian Flu is not pandemic Flu.  But because humans have little natural immunity, Avian Flu is the strain of Flu that has the most potential to become a pandemic Flu.

Multifamily Housing and the Flu

According to Deloitte Consulting, only about 25 percent of companies currently have a pandemic preparedness plan.  But 100 percent of businesses should have a contingency plan in place to address how they would run their operations in the event of an outbreak.

The federal government has released the National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza, which includes business planning checklists.  It is available at (See sidebar for a list of other resources available.)  These tools can help businesses think through some of the situations they are likely to encounter if there is a pandemic Flu outbreak. 

Federal agencies have not issued specific guidance for the apartment industry and are not expected to.  But for owners and managers of residential property the possibility of a pandemic Flu presents unique challenges.  In the event of an outbreak, many other businesses could simply shut down temporarily, but in order to continue to provide housing for their residents, apartment firms must be able to operate their businesses at a very high level even during an outbreak.  Indeed, it may be even more important for multi-housing firms to be able to provide services, because in an outbreak many people would need to or would choose to stay home.

Earlier this year, the National Multifamily Housing Council prepared a white paper for its members that explained the information that a interagency federal task force had collected.  It highlighted the importance to apartment companies of revising any existing disaster planning tools to include the possibility of a pandemic Flu.    

Some of the elements of comprehensive planning for a possible pandemic Flu include:

  • Conduct regular self-audits and revisit your plan regularly to make adjustments based on changes in your company, its workforce, and the particular communities your firm operates.
  • Cross-train your company employees on multiple job functions so healthy employees can fill in for other who may be out due to illness.
  • Consider non-punitive “liberal leave” policies to require ill employees to stay home sick and to accommodate situations where healthy employees are absent because of family circumstances.
  • Establish policies for telecommuting, staggered shifts, and flexible work hours to the greatest extent possible.
  • Establish protocols for staff to stay in touch with their supervisors if one or both are out of the office for an extended time.
  • Create tiered access to your firm’s Information Technology network so that critical personnel have priority access in serious situations.
  • Instruct employees about how they should prepare themselves and their families for disaster by storing food, medications, etc.
  • Mitigate possible supply disruptions by examining your supply needs and pre-arranging alternate vendor and contractor relationships in case your primary vendors are unavailable.
  • Develop the plan under the auspices of your company’s top leadership, so employees at all levels know that they should take the plan seriously.
  • Familiarize yourself with state and local public health officials and disaster management officials.  In an emergency, they will be responsible for providing your community with the most up-to-date information as well as the recommended procedures and mandatory activities.

Conclusion: Be Prepared

In the event of a pandemic Flu, the Department of Health and Human Services estimates that roughly 40 percent of individuals are likely to become ill; about 10 percent of people in a given area will be sick at any one time, generally for about 10 days.  Once the disease breaks out in a specific area, it is likely that the “wave” will last for about 8 weeks.  But the global pandemic could last for about 8 months with a predicted fatality rate of 2.5 percent, similar to that of the 1918 Spanish flu. 

There is no doubt that a pandemic Flu outbreak would present disruptions at all levels of society, making it even more important that we prepare for it.  And the federal government’s response capacity is limited; the Secretary of Health and Human Services has said that “(a)ny community that fails to prepare with the idea that somehow, in the end, the federal government will be able to rescue them will be tragically wrong.”

Since there is no current outbreak, adopting a “wait and see” approach on this subject may seem tempting, but the implications of global disruptions across virtually every sector of the economy make this position untenable.  And previous experience has shown that now, before a disaster occurs, is the best time for firms to identify areas of vulnerability and to develop plans to strengthen them. 

While there is little that we as an industry can do to prevent a possible pandemic, taking these steps now will help us to be prepared for a pandemic Flu should we be faced with one.

Eileen Lee is the Vice President of Environment at the National Multiamily Housing Council.


  • Additional information on flu, including Avian flu, is available at
  • Updates on the worldwide Avian flu situation are available from the World Health Organization at
  • For more information and guidance on industry’s role in planning for a pandemic flu outbreak, go to
  • For information about how individuals and families can plan for emergencies go to
  • For information on inclusive emergency plans, go to
  • For information about risk communication, go to, specifically:
  • “Effective Media Communication during Public Health Emergencies,”
  • The Conference Board maintains a resource page that contains useful information for corporate decision makers on the danger and challenges that avian flu poses to business and to society.
  • For information about preparing for all types of disasters, go to
  • The Department of Homeland Security report Pandemic Influenza Preparedness, Response and Recovery Guide is available at