Big or small, disasters most often strike out of the blue. They catch us unaware, flatfooted and feeling helpless at their impact. This is especially true when these disasters hit us at home or within our shared co-op or condo communities.
When fire, flood, hurricanes or even death occur, residents and neighbors can be left feeling frightened and adrift and look to the board and property management for guidance and help. This is why it is so important for communities and associations to have action plans in place and be prepared as best they can be for the unexpected.
It Happens to Everyone
For residential communities, the most common types of problems fall into two major categories, says Chuck Schneider, CMCA, AMS, president of Lincoln Hancock Restoration LLC and part of the Associa management company. These two categories are “weather-related phenomena and those actions typically caused by humans,” he says. “Weather phenomena are generally larger in scale; things like hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, earthquakes, wild fires and hail or wind storms. Disasters caused by humans are smaller in size and scope and are most commonly water losses, such as a broken water line, or individual unit or building fire.”
Other major disasters can be even smaller in scale but just as devastating. These involve the aftermaths of violent domestic incidents, and the accidental deaths or unattended deaths of individuals without family or friends who may not be found for days afterward. While these situations may only involve one unit, their impact can be felt by neighboring units or throughout the whole building community.
What to Do When Things Get Bad
When disaster strikes, the men and women in charge must prioritize and focus on what matters most: the well-being of their residents. “The safety of the individuals in the building, at the time of the emergency, is always the first and most important priority,” says Schneider. “The first step may entail contacting emergency personnel, such as the police or fire department, if injury or death is a concern. In that case, the community manager should immediately call 9-1-1. After the building is safe and secure, then it is appropriate to focus on the preservation of the property.”
If the worst should occur, says Schneider, “Emergency responders have the authority and training to guide you through the initial response. The police, medical or fire responders will know if city or state agencies need to be contacted, and they will generally contact the appropriate agencies directly.”
“One of the first things anyone should do in the wake of an emergency wherein a property incurs significant damage is to contact one's insurance carrier to see if they have a preferred contractor to remediate damages,” says Bob Meyer, director of engineering services at FirstService Residential of Illinois in Chicago.
Finding the right company to make those repairs falls under the duties of the management and board. “It is always the responsibility of the insured to select the contractor to complete the repairs,” says Schneider. “While most insurance companies will offer names of contractors to complete the work, it is not advisable to select those contractors. The best course of action is to follow the advice of your management company. Your management company should have strong relationships with vendors who have proven track records of delivering quality service.”
As with most things, preparation paves the way for better outcomes. Andrew Yurchuck, president of the American Bio-Recovery Association (ABRA) and CEO of BioClean in New Jersey, suggests that associations and boards need to come up with a plan long before disaster or biological cleanups are ever needed. “What if there’s a flood, fire, crime scene or someone passes away unattended—you need to have a company in mind to take care of these things,” Yurchuck says. Especially when there is loss of life, “you want to act quickly. There’s a responsibility to the other people in proximity” to the event.
Meyer agrees. “Our company has a mandatory emergency procedure manual that should be easily accessible to any first responder, so that they have the appropriate contact information and protocol. This type of manual should cover all likely disasters and contain the most up-to-date information.”
Yurchuck also underscores the importance of being prepared for the legal ramifications of a death on your premises, especially those that involve the loss of someone who may have lived alone or is without close next of kin. “Let’s say you have to go in and clean up after a death,” he says. “The association has to be very careful going in to authorize the cleanup. Maybe someone passed away on a couch in their unit, for example. That couch has to be disposed of, but then the next of kin may protest and say ‘You threw out our sofa.’ You have to coordinate with your legal department to stay out of trouble.”
“There are several legal concerns,” adds Schneider, “that may be relevant in certain loss of life situations. The best plan of action is to quickly seek the guidance of an experienced and reputable attorney before taking any action.”
Cleaning Up and Making Whole Again
Setting things right after a disaster or emergency situation will go more smoothly if everyone knows their roles. “The property manager should act as the hub of communication, providing all essential information to relevant third parties and residents,” says Meyer.
Clear and open communication also will facilitate a healthy, positive and full recovery for the community. “Management should work toward leading all parties to remediation and resolution,” Meyer adds.
Cleaning up after disasters such as fire and flooding can be extensive, and should be handled by a team of professionals. Following a fire, Schneider says, “The first step is to secure the affected area” by boarding up the site. After fire officials complete their investigation, the building will be released and restoration can begin. This process starts usually with demolition and the removal of any contents damaged by smoke, fire and water. “It is not uncommon for smoke to cause more damage than the fire itself,” Schneider says. “What appears to be a small, contained fire can often result in a significant amount of smoke damage well beyond the area of the blaze.”
For situations involving wind and storms, roofs often sustain the greatest damage. When that occurs, the first step is usually to “conduct temporary repairs to ensure that water intrusion does not occur,” says Schneider. “After the temporary repairs are conducted, it is appropriate to file an insurance claim. Through the insurance claim process, it will be determined if your roof requires full replacement or only partial replacement. Evaluating wind damage to a roof is a scientific process that commonly involves engineers with specialized expertise in evaluating wind damage to buildings. It is important that your roofing contractor have a strong background in navigating wind claims as well as relationships with engineers who can help evaluate your roof.”
In the rare instances when violent crime, suicide or accidental death brings tragedy to a community, cleaning up the scene requires highly specialized contractors. And management needs to make sure that the right firms are on call should the need arise.
“You need to really establish that your company has specific environmental insurance,” says Yurchuck. “There are companies that advertise, but are not certified. You need to check their credentials and check their insurance. A janitorial company can clean, but may not do it properly.” And the improper cleaning of a biohazardous situation can have significant ramifications, including the possibility of a future resident getting ill.
Fortunately, the American Bio-Recovery Association can help communities find reputable providers either via their website or through their organization’s toll free number. “We vet companies to make sure they have all their documentation in place and proper training,” Yurchuck says.
In coping with the aftermath of a trauma or disaster, it helps if the individuals affected can turn to management and the community as a whole for support. “It is always important to remember that a disaster in your home, such as a flood or fire, is very stressful,” says Schneider. “For many people it is a devastating experience. As you interact with owners who are affected by the disaster it is important to be patient and to listen. Talking about the experience is often very therapeutic.”
Flexibility also can help during recovery, Schneider adds. “Boards and community managers should also be aware of the potential need to offer individuals a temporary respite from association rules and regulations. For example if a unit owner experienced a fire at their house, the board should expect that fire debris will need to be stored outside. This is not the time to strictly enforce rules and administer fines. A hardship exception is appropriate for these situations.”
By being prepared and working together, communities can overcome disasters large and small. And it helps to remember that expert help is available should the need arise. Ultimately, these situations may work to bring neighbors, managers and board members closer together while at the same time, making communities stronger.
Elizabeth Lent is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Chicagoland Cooperator. Staff writer Michael Odenthal contributed to this article.