By Daria Dudzinski
Daria Dudzinski is senior manager of government affairs for the National Multifamily Housing Council (NMHC) in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tropical Storm Elsa’s move across Florida and the Southeast is a pointed reminder for multifamily property owners to take serious stock of their strategies for preparing and dealing with hurricanes.
The 2020 hurricane season saw record breaking activity, and 2021 isn’t likely to offer much reprieve. Although Elsa was initially predicted to hit U.S. land as a Category 1 hurricane, the tropical storm travels through Florida, Georgia the Carolinas, leaving behind destruction and flooding.
And although Elsa marks one of the first major storms of the season, it certainly won’t be the last. NOAA predicts this season could see 13 to 20 named storms, of which six to 10 could become hurricanes, including three to five major hurricanes.
With all this at play, another active hurricane season may seem overwhelming for our industry. Here are a few steps to ensure you’ve made all the necessary preparations as the season gears up.
Ask the Experts
It is never too late to implement preparedness measures. FEMA’s Business Ready Hurricane Toolkit is a valuable resource for apartment firms looking for guidance and steps to take in mitigating the risk posed by the looming storm season. The toolkit can help firms identify their risk and develop emergency plans and provides practical checklists.
While the country is well on its path to recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, FEMA recently issued its COVID-19 Pandemic Operational Guidance All-Hazards, which called attention to the threat that disasters pose in disrupting pandemic mitigation efforts, especially vaccine rollouts. FEMA’s document offers apartment firms critical direction on response and recovery operations amidst lingering COVID-19 protocols and can be applied to any disaster operation from hurricanes to wildfires and flooding. NMHC’s guide on establishing an Incident Response Plan for hurricane season and other disasters can also help inform a firm’s efforts.
Find Out Who Has You Covered
Familiarizing yourself with your firm’s insurance policies and their coverage is critical to your preparedness planning. This includes checking if your coverage is up to date, its policy limits, deductibles and limitations. If the valuation of your property has changed in the past year from construction or renovation, this should be reflected in your policy.
Whether your insurance policy is through a private company or through the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), there are often policy limitations property owners overlook. The NFIP, for example, only provides up to $500,000 of coverage per building and carries a range of policy limitations that could leave financial risk caused by flooding events to go unmitigated.
Similarly, some private flood insurance policies do not cover flooding caused by wind, which can include storm surges created by hurricanes. Because of this, it’s important owners have a thorough understanding of their policies and they should consult their insurance brokers about additional policy options to better protect their assets.
Even if your property has not needed flood or other catastrophic coverage in the past few years, you still may not be off the hook. An increase in extreme weather events means property owners outside coastal areas and known flood zones should review their insurance policies and preparedness plans.
Do Some Resident Outreach
Flood insurance can offer a critical financial shield not just for property owners, but for residents as well. Traditional renter’s insurance does not cover the value of residents’ possessions in the aftermath of flooding. So as hurricane season kicks off, owners should encourage their residents to take out flood insurance policies. Policies are available through the NFIP at relatively affordable rates. If residents are on stable financial grounds after a storm, property owners have greater visibility into rent revenue streams post storms.
Now that your residents are prepared going into hurricane season, what happens if a storm is on its way? If a violent storm is predicted for the area, owners have a hefty to-do list for safely securing the property. Even so, communicating with residents should be the upmost priority. If local officials make evacuation plans for the region, it’s critical residents are aware of these plans, including details like the locations of shelters on higher ground.
Residents should have all the resources and information needed to help them weather this tumultuous time. Links to the local disaster or emergency management agency, personal safety tips, relevant checklists, basic instructions for minimizing property damage and the FEMA mobile app are all resources that will go a long way. Removing furniture and other items from balconies and using flashlights instead of candles in the event of a power outage should be included on checklists.
Pick Up the Pieces
After a storm or other natural disaster has hit the area, it can be challenging for property owners to get their residents and community back on their feet. In a worst-case scenario, owners may need to inform residents about alternative housing options and financial assistance.
FEMA and the Red Cross track shelter information and locations and FEMA’s Transitional Sheltering Assistance program is available for residents in need of shelter for an extended period of time. For financial assistance or low-interest loans to cover personal property damage, let residents know they can go to DisasterAssistance.gov to begin the qualification and registration process for these and other similar programs.
What else can property owners do to help residents during this time? In the aftermath of past storms, many firms choose to freeze rents, waive late fees or lessen lease terms to help their residents through this challenging time.
Another critical step firms should take after a storm causes property damage is to contact their loan servicers and insurance companies. Thoroughly photographing and documenting any damage is crucial to filing a claim. On the operational front, many government agencies have disaster recovery guidance and protocols. These resources can answer important questions surrounding occupancy standards, vacant units, evictions, Section 8 residents and post-disaster relief.
Focus on Resiliency
Although NOAA predicts this hurricane season won’t be as busy as last year, it only takes one storm to greatly damage a community. Beginning with this year’s hurricane season, NOAA has raised the number of storms classifying an “average” season—highlighting that extreme weather events are intensifying and increasing in occurrence.
This means the safety and financial risk hurricanes pose to property owners and residents isn’t going anywhere fast. But owners don’t have to be left defenseless during the stormy season. Even with varying resources, all apartment firms can take thorough stock of the risks they face and plan all the steps they can take to lessen the blow. With an all-hands-on-deck approach to planning, this hurricane season can be safer for your residents and community.