Floods are one of the most common types of natural disasters. They can also be the most detrimental for high-rise buildings. The nature of these buildings makes them particularly vulnerable to flooding caused by severe storms. It may be instinct to think “but I’m several stories above the ground – I’m not at risk for flooding!” However, many of the critical systems in high-rise buildings, including boilers, elevators, generators and water pumps, are located underground, sometimes several levels underground, and the risk to those systems in a flood is high.
“Vulnerability doesn’t have to equate to disaster,” said Tal Eyal, president of FS Project Management, a subsidiary of FirstService Residential. “Management, boards and residents can do a lot to keep people safe and to minimize property loss during a flood. It’s a matter of taking what we’ve learned and applying it to all high-rises – especially in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, which was the most destructive storm of the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season.”
What were those lessons? Eyal elaborated. “Before Sandy hit, a lot of buildings didn’t have emergency generators. When the power grid went down, it caused the fire pumps, sump pumps and water pumps to fail. All of the sump pumps that buildings relied on became obsolete,” he explained. “When fire pumps don’t work, you must evacuate the building. When a water pump doesn’t work, you should initiate a voluntary evacuation because there will not be working plumbing above the sixth floor. Failure of the sump pump results in standing water and therefore, more damage to the building. This is why our high-rises now have generators or co-generators so that these critical systems will continue to run even if a storm disrupts power.”
With that, let’s take a look at how you can minimize risks of a flood in your high-rise building – and meet the challenges of flooding, should it occur.
1. Know your flood risk.
If you’re in a flood zone, or located next to a river or body of water, you’re obviously at an elevated risk. But you’ll want to look beyond the obvious. For instance, high-rises located in valleys or low-lying areas might be vulnerable to flooding, even if they aren’t near water.
The construction of the building comes into play, too – those with basements or multiple underground levels may find themselves at risk. To get even more specific, high-rises with basements should take a look at the equipment that’s located down there. Are there sump pumps? Are there generators? Answering these questions can help you pinpoint your risk.
Of course, it helps to get input that goes beyond what you can see with the naked eye. A professional property management company can help you assess your vulnerabilities too. Property management teams with decades of experience – along with access to local flood data and knowledge of your area – will lend key insight that can serve as the foundation of your preparedness plan.
2. Protect critical systems.
You’ll want to know exactly where your mechanical and electrical systems are located. If they’re in the basement, and your building is at risk of flooding, you’ll want to insulate and protect this equipment so it remains operational should the worst occur. The same applies to your building’s water pump – in most cities, the municipal system won’t push water beyond the sixth floor, which would leave residents in the upper part of your building without water in the instance of flood. Without water, bathrooms will no longer be available, which will force an evacuation of the residents.
Also, make sure your fire pump (which operates the sprinkler system) is protected from potential flood damage, and that you have emergency staircase and corridor lighting that will remain operational even in the event of a power outage. For taller buildings, ensure that you’ll have at least one working elevator during an emergency (most likely, this will be powered by a generator). Don’t let essential back-up systems become inoperable when you need them most; protect them against flood waters with proper storage. Again, an experienced management company will have encountered this challenge before and can tailor a storage plan to your building.
As a final note on basements: take a look at everything you have stored there and imagine the result that space filled with water. This might affect how you choose to house other materials – such as fuel or heating oil. During severe flooding, these materials create an environmental hazard that poses a danger to your residents. Store smart and stay safe.
3. Create an emergency plan and communicate it.
Developing a comprehensive emergency plan for your residents is essential. This plan should encompass a wide variety of disasters, including fire, medical emergencies and yes, floods.
A complete plan will include emergency contacts, evacuation maps and directions and tips for residents on how to submit insurance claims. Your plan should also list critical items residents should have on hand as part of their personal disaster preparedness kits. You should also have provisions in place for protecting your most vulnerable residents, such as the elderly, people with disabilities and children. A good property management team will know your resident profiles and will have the experience needed to develop strategies for accommodating these individuals.
Communication is key, too. Some management companies have special technologies for keeping residents informed during emergencies. FirstService Residential’s proprietary system, Resident Alert, sends critical updates via email, text message or phone during times of crisis.
Look to your property management company to help make a staffing plan for emergencies, with planning right down to stocking food and providing accommodations for the extra team members you’ll need on-site during a flood. They’ll also help source preparedness items such as portable foundation walls or sandbags you can install around your building when there’s a forecast for heavy storms and possible flooding.
Should a disaster occur, a residential property management company with vast resources can help you find critical equipment like additional back-up generators from their roster of certified, quality vendors in other markets. This can be invaluable when local resources for these items are tapped out due to heavy demands in emergency situations.
Once you have your emergency plan in place, get the word out to your residents, building staff and management team, using electronic documents for the tech-savvy and printed materials for residents who prefer hard copies.
4. Ensure that you have the right insurance.
Much to their detriment, many high-rise associations put their insurance on auto-pilot. It’s best practice to review your policy with an experienced insurance agent who specializes in high-rise properties annually. By conducting this policy review process each year, you’ll be sure your association has the maximum available insurance coverage for the best possible price. What’s more, a great property management company can help you implement policies and procedures that lower your building’s risk and, as a result, could lower your association’s premiums, too.
There’s one thing to keep in mind that’s specific to flood insurance: will it cover the gaps that FEMA (The Federal Emergency Management Agency) leaves open? For instance, FEMA excludes coverage for business income and additional living expenses. Make sure your property management company connects you with a professional insurance agent who’s familiar with FEMA’s limitations and can craft a flood insurance policy that ensures you’re fully covered.
Flood insurance can be valuable even if your high-rise isn’t required to have it. Michael Hagewood is the manager of The Rhythm at Music Row in Nashville, Tennessee, which sits more than a mile from the Cumberland River and was not affected by devastating flooding of that river in 2010. Because it is not in a flood zone, the building is not required to carry flood insurance. However, some buildings in Nashville do have that coverage even when not required. “The storm water system here in Nashville can get overloaded pretty quickly,” Hagewood said. “If the storm sewers can’t handle flooding and back up into your building, causing damage, the flood insurance covers it, so it’s the responsible thing to do.”
Hagewood said that the building he lived in during the 2010 floods was damaged. “My unit was on the second floor, so it wasn’t damaged, but the entire first floor was. All owners had to pay a special assessment because of that damage and the association is still paying off a Small Business Administration loan from that time,” he explained. “I tell people my story about the flooding when I encourage them to get an HO-6 insurance policy with special assessment coverage, and it makes a difference. I don’t think enough people know about that insurance or how important it can be. They are definitely more likely to buy it after hearing my experience.”
While there’s no way to prevent a flood, with proper preparation you can mitigate the potential damage – and more importantly, keep your residents safe. Put your plan in place now.