The devastating hurricane that struck in October left buildings scrambling for light, water, and heat. Damage control was key, solutions slow. What follows are real-time reports from boards and managers, and some advice for future challenges.
Have Generator, Will Travel
Because local water pressure is too weak to raise water to the upper stories, buildings over six stories use an electric pump to fill their water tanks, after which gravity goes to work. As a result, most buildings that were without electricity in the storm’s aftermath were without water. A novel idea to deal with this came from Midboro Management. The firm hired a flatbed truck, attached a portable generator to it, and spent two hours at each building, using the electrical hook-up to refill the water tanks. In such a situation, the water supply usually lasts for one to two days (depending on use) and then the manager can come by and refill the tanks. It’s a pricey solution, however – each visit costs about $1,000 – and boards need to decide whether it’s worth the cost. Factors to consider: a large elderly and/or infirm population might benefit.
John Wolf, president of Alexander Wolf & Company, and some of his boards felt it was important to get light and heat to the common areas. Therefore, he delivered three portable home generators to dark properties (he had bought more than a dozen of them before the disaster) to help some of them (including one populated mostly by the elderly) to get limited light and power back for lobbies and hallways for brief intervals.
Be sure your manager is on top of the cleanup situation. After a disaster, you want to get crews in ASAP to remove rubble and return the property to a semblance of order. This should be followed by a visit from an insurance adjuster. Of the 68 townhouse units at the Villas at Oceanside, for instance, 35 were flooded, reports Pam DeLorme, the principal at Delkap, manager of the Long Island property. “All the first-floor people were affected,” she says. At another Delkap property, the 75-unit Bell Beach in Rockaway, the boiler room, the first-floor lobby, the garage, and the elevator pit were all flooded. Neither property had electricity for days. While the residents toughed it out, DeLorme made sure a cleanup company arrived the day after the storm. An adjuster arrived soon after that to evaluate the situation.
In addition, be certain your manager stays on top of potentially hazardous situations. Peter Lehr, the director of property management at Kaled, reports that Birchwood on the Green, a 334-unit property in Oakdale, Suffolk County, was hard hit by the storm: the power went out and the sewage treatment plant needed oversight. “Our environmental team has been monitoring the situation because you’ve got to make sure that the [sewage plant] chemicals are balanced right,” says Lehr.
Taking Care of Business
Boards should have a disaster plan in place to cope with the needs of their residents, many of whom will probably be stranded in their unpowered apartments. In Manhattan, Dan Wurtzel, president of Cooper Square Realty, notes that many of the firm’s buildings lost power. The issue the boards faced “was how are people going to live there, especially the elderly or people who are handicapped and are unable to leave their apartment or seek alternative housing?”
Seeking alternative housing is “very difficult,” he notes, because “hotels have no power, and ones that had power were booked or were charging $700 a night for a room, and that cut off a great deal of potential alternative housing. And you couldn’t go anywhere because the trains were down, bridges were closed, and tunnels were closed.”
Cooper Square tried to ease conditions for residents, bringing in food and bottled water, as well as supplying lighting glow sticks for residents. Portable generators were also brought in to run pumping equipment. “The first order of business was to get the water out of the building,” Wurtzel says.
Staff also performed periodic checks on the elderly and/or the disabled. Some building workers couldn’t make it to their buildings; those who could worked double shifts.
While the firm put together an ad hoc plan to cope, Wurtzel says that it’s better to follow the Boy Scout’s motto and be prepared. “Nobody had a contingency plan. No one felt it was going to be that destructive. We’ve had bad storms in the past, but none that were catastrophic. This was catastrophic.
To Generate or Co-Generate
By Ronda Kaysen
As New York co-ops and condos struggle to recover from Super Storm Sandy, many boards are grappling with a problem they never anticipated: power outages that leave residents in the dark for weeks. New Yorkers are not accustomed to spending extended periods in the dark. But if Sandy turns out to be the beginning of a new weather pattern, co-op and condo boards are going to need to address the reality that their building could be rendered powerless again.
“People are learning from this,” says Edward Brzezowski, a mechanical engineer for the Falcon Group in New York. “Nobody ever expected more than a day or two power outage. Two weeks is going to change the design requirements.”
Unfortunately, there is no easy solution. A building could install a generator to power critical equipment, but commercial generators are a major capital investment for something that may never be used. In the long term, buildings may need to become more energy independent by installing systems that combine heat and power, which generate energy for daily use but also allow a building to function independently of the grid if necessary.
Already, some property managers are beginning to consider next steps. Leslie Kaminoff, CEO of Akam Living Services, a property management company with properties in New York and Florida, now plans to educate his New York property managers about generators so they can pass the information along to condo and co-op boards.
None of Akam’s New York City properties have generators, but the company’s Florida properties do. After Hurricane Andrew devastated Florida in 1992, strict new building codes require multi-family buildings to install generator capabilities. Now, the condos that line Miami’s beaches have invested in generators in the event of a major storm. “The way we look at it is it’s a life and safety issue. That’s the reality of it,” says Kaminoff.
To put it another way: “A generator is almost like an insurance policy. You never know when you are going to need it,” says Bruce Masia, senior district manager for KW Property Management and Consulting in Florida.
In the event of a disaster like Sandy, a generator can be a lifeline for a building. It can power a building’s critical services like elevators, emergency lights, and the sump pumps that get floodwaters out of a basement. Depending on its size, a generator could potentially provide a building with enough electricity to deliver domestic water and heat to units. If a generator is powered by diesel fuel or gasoline, it will last as long as the tank has fuel. If it is powered by natural gas and the gas lines haven’t been damaged by the storm, it can run indefinitely.
Generators are not cheap. Depending on the size and load, a generator can cost a building anywhere from one hundred thousand to several million dollars. There are other factors to consider as well: a generator needs to be stored somewhere; if it runs on diesel fuel or gasoline, the gas needs to be stored; it requires proper ventilation; and it needs to be regularly maintained and serviced. In short, a generator is a major undertaking with no immediate payoff.
“You just can’t go to Home Depot and get a generator and hook it up,” says Dan Wurtzel, president of Cooper Square Realty. “It’s a significant capital project and the question is: can you do it? Can you afford to do it? And is it worth doing?”
Every building has its own needs and capabilities. A building considering installing a generator would first need to hire an engineer to determine how big the generator should be, what load it requires, the safest place to put it, and how to fuel it.
Finding a place to house a generator is the first challenge. The equipment can require 5,000 square feet of space and needs to be vented 10 feet from a window. Depending on the load, it may be too heavy to store on a rooftop. If it is on the roof, it needs to be protected from high winds.
A generator needs fuel. A building must get permits to store a large fuel tank – and find space to store it – if it runs on diesel or gasoline. The generator will work only as long as the supply lasts, usually a day or two. So, in the event of a weeks-long outage where fuel supplies run short, as happened during Sandy, refueling could be hard.
The other option: natural gas. “I’m getting more and more respect for natural gas. Power was out, but I still could take a shower and run a stove,” says Brzezowski of the Falcon Group.
In order to install a natural gas-run generator, a building would need to contact the utility company to upgrade its gas service. If the generator is housed on the roof, a gas line would have to be run up to the roof. But if gas lines are compromised during the storm, the system would be useless. The system’s switchgear needs to be protected as well, particularly in the event of a storm surge where gear could be submerged, causing the generator to fail.
Once it is installed, staff will need to be trained to maintain it. The generator needs to be tested regularly, turned on weekly and maintained.
“There are all kinds of challenges to generators. What kind of capital expense are you willing to invest for something that is going to be on standby?” says Peter E. Varsalona, principal at Rand Engineering and Architecture. “A board has to decide: Is this a worthwhile investment?”
As an alternative, a building could install a critical load panel that has a connection for a generator in the event of a power outage. The building could then lease a generator in the wake of a storm. However, that poses risks, too. Generators are few and far between. In Florida, the buildings that rely on rentals can find rentals scarce when the storm comes. “After the storm it’s too late,” says Kaminoff.
Cogeneration and Independence
For some buildings, the answer may be to look to a greener future. Most of Bayside, Queens, did not lose power during Sandy. However, if it had, the Americana, a 290-unit complex there, would not have gone dark. In 2011, the building installed a combined heat and power (CHP) plant. The so-called cogeneration system – three natural-gas-fueled engines – generates about 85 percent of the building’s electricity. The heat created by the engines is then used to heat domestic hot water and heat the building. If Bayside had lost power, the building would have flipped an automatic transfer switch that would have powered up the elevators and most of the building.
“So long as there was no interruption of natural gas, we could power the building endlessly,” says on-site property manager Carl Caridi.
Like generators, CHP systems are not cheap or easy to install. The Americana’s system cost $3.6 million. And they make sense only for larger complexes. They too have risks: in the event of major flooding from a storm surge, they would be submerged and damaged. However, unlike a generator, the investment is something a building can use daily.
But if a building had a CHP system in a storm, says Brzezowski, “they’d have lights, they would still have domestic hot water, and they’d have heat. You would not have people who have to deal with 20 degrees tonight.”
Evacuation on West 58th
As told to Habitat by Carl Tait, Board President, 152 West 58th Street
We’re a 33-unit co-op that is directly behind 157 West 57th Street, the Extell/Lend Lease super-mega-tower. On Monday, October 29th, the day of Hurricane Sandy, I was working at home on my computer, so lost in what I was doing, I didn’t hear anything until my wife came in with a horrified expression and said, “Carl, the crane on top of that Extell building just broke.”
I went downstairs and asked a policeman on the corner, “Will we be evacuated?” He said: “Oh, you’re already evacuated.Police are clearing your building right now. Don’t even bother to go home.” That seemed kind of strange to me, considering I just came from there. I went back and checked and there was no evacuation under way. A theme began emerging: despite the best efforts by the Fire Department, the Police Department, the Office of Emergency Management, and the Department of Buildings, they did a very bad job of coordinating with each other and getting accurate information out.
Threat of Collapse
Back at the building, there were no officials there telling us to leave. In fact, the official word at that point was found only by Googling. The upper floors on West 57th Street had apparently been evacuated, which was reasonable. If the crane should fall and start smashing things, I learned that it would be like having a seven-story building collapsing on top of our building. That’s a frightening thought.
I went door-to-door, to all of our unit-owners, telling people that the crane had broken and was swinging in the wind, and that we might or might not be evacuated. I have two five-and-a-half-year old twins, plus a dog, so we were getting ready with what we had to take if we had to leave for a day or two. Other people were doing the same thing.
For a couple of years at least, we have maintained an e-mail list of at least every resident-shareholder and even some residents who are not shareholders. I sent out an e-mail to them saying the building was being evacuated. Since people don’t necessarily check their e-mail constantly like I do, I wanted to make sure that everyone knew everything at that moment – so I also started knocking on doors. I did the right thing.
I talked to the super and he was already prepared to stay. None of us really knew for sure the laws on this – if he would be allowed to stay to make sure that, among other things, the pipes didn’t freeze. As it turned out, he was required to leave when the evacuation took place.
I talked to our managing agent, but we didn’t have anybody on site, and with transportation shut down across the city, the management firm had no way of getting here. Frankly, that’s why there’s not much that anyone could have done. The fire department came by and said, “Okay, sorry, this whole block is being evacuated; you have to leave.”
By 6:30, it was just awful. When we finally left, I had one of my girls on each hand clutching me. We walked across Sixth Avenue and were practically blown over by the wind. We got into a place where we were waiting for a bus, and some of those Jersey barriers – made out of plastic instead of cement – were just blowing down the street. That was the scariest moment of the whole thing, when you’re holding two little kids and you see this barrier, bigger than they are, come blowing toward you. That was really scary.
We were out of the building for six days. We stayed connected to our community via e-mail. I was sending updates, and the people were responding and telling me about their situations, telling me where they were if they had a place to stay, and also that they were okay.
The expenses broke down mainly into two halves. The first half was for the hotel expenses, and Extell (the developer) either had already paid or has agreed to pay. The other expenses? Lend Lease (the construction company) has set up a number for people to call and file a claim for reimbursement of non-hotel expenses. It’s not clear what they will actually cover.
After considerable struggling back and forth, the police department finally allowed people to come back in on an emergency basis to get things that were critical to them. We got back in permanently almost a week later.
A lesson from all this: have a way to contact people by e-mail. We had one in place. It really did work.
Dealing with properties in Nyack flooded by Hurricane Sandy, Don Wilson, president of Blue Woods Management, spoke to Habitat about the ordeal.
First Steps I recommended that the residents [in our buildings] leave because the local utility company could not predict when they could get power back on and the weather was getting colder. I would say 75 percent of the people in each building did end up vacating. The staffs remained and we filed insurance claims for everything, including loss of rents. I’m hoping we’re going to be able to at least return a prorated amount of maintenance for the time they were out.
As for communicating, we sent a letter to the residents that we posted and put under doors because the buildings do not have a complete e-mail list, but there was also no power and no internet. When people would call in, we got cell numbers for them.
Where Is Everybody? The supers and the doormen are really good at identifying elderly or infirm people in the building. We dealt with situations where we wanted to make sure that someone had been moved out or that her family or his family knew that. In most of our buildings we have emergency contact forms for each shareholder.
Talk to Me Communication was very informal during the storm and its aftermath, and there were some groups of people who communicated with each other, but again there was no service in that area. The only thing that was really working were cell phones. That’s why I was still putting memos under every door.
Before I Grow Mold In the flooded buildings that had it, sheetrock was removed. It’s a breeding ground for mold, so if there’s flooding and you have sheetrock, you get rid of it. In one property, a big community room had sheetrock, and that was removed two days after the storm. So that’s all out, and whatever reconstruction has to be done will wait until the insurance adjuster visits.
Next TIME If this happens again, a short-term solution would be gas-powered generators, provided you can store the gasoline someplace. The other thing is that the emergency lights that the buildings have are really pretty useless, because you’re lucky if they last eight hours. For years, we have been distributing glow sticks to the residents and to the building staff, and those are good – they do last eight hours and they’re inexpensive.
Two Worlds The most difficult thing is that we’ve got a lot of buildings that weren’t affected at all. So, for them life was continuing as normal. I was getting e-mails about Halloween parties on one hand and on the other hand I’ve got 95 apartments with no power, no heat, no hot water. I had to tell people at certain points, these other buildings still have a lot of problems that require my attention. I did have a couple of calls from residents who were basically expecting that a flashlight would be given out to everybody by the staff. I think that’s another issue. People have to make some preparations for themselves.
What to know when the next storm strikes.
Barbara Strauss, an executive vice president at York International, an insurance broker, advises owners to “be concerned about mold from the water. Get in and clean it as quickly as possible.” (If you have sheetrock walls, remove them.) Take a picture of the damage, then contact your insurance broker. He or she will get an adjuster on the scene and, if you are covered, you will be reimbursed.
In situations such as the catastrophic storm in October, there will probably be delays in getting adjusters to your property. That could mean more delays in getting your claim settled – which is especially bad news if your building is uninhabitable. In those cases, Strauss points to a solution: “If somebody is really devastated and their loss is extremely severe, they can sometimes get an advance from their insurance company.”
There is another wrinkle of which you should be aware. Both Strauss and broker Michael Spain, president of The Spain Agency, say that under some policies, the carrier is requiring a statement from Con Edison (or the building’s energy supplier) confirming that the utility’s relay station went down (this condition can be met by citing information on Con Ed’s website (see box, p. 37), stating that your property was in a flood zone that lost power).
Then, the co-op or condo will have to show how that caused a dollar loss to the property. “For example,” Spain explains, “they have to show they were forced to rent portable generators, or that people stopped paying [maintenance], or that the commercial tenant stopped paying rent. They have to show there was direct out-of-pocket loss [to the property] because of the utility’s failure to provide electricity. The insurance carrier is not just going to start writing checks without that.”
The board should also remind residents to consult with their own insurance carriers.
Shine the Light
Stock up on glow sticks: waterproof, inexpensive, and a much-used light source that is safe in any kind of catastrophic situation.
Unlike flashlights, sticks don’t need batteries, are individually foil-wrapped, can glow for 12 hours, and often have a three-year shelf life. Most management firms buy them in bulk; they are available from many outlets (see box, below). Prices vary, so call around. Also, it is important to buy them in bulk and stockpile them before a storm hits. If you use the sticks to light hallways, they need to be replaced every 12 hours – and you may not be able to get new ones during a crisis. After Sandy struck, supplier F&F sold out its entire stock of 55,000 sticks.
Don Wilson, president of Blue Woods Management Group, says light sticks are good but do not give off as much light as the battery-operated fluorescent Energizer LED Task Light, which he says is more reliable than typical emergency lighting. “Emergency lighting can have a limited life,” he explains, noting that batteries run out of power even when they’re not being used, so they may be dead when you need them in an emergency.
Staff should be assigned the task of checking up on the elderly and the infirm. How your manager goes about doing that depends on the size and make-up of the building, explains Don Levy, a vice president at Brown Harris Stevens. Management should have a list of locations for those who need the most help. Get a head start on planning potential evacuations. “If a flood knocks out the elevators, you have to plan for how you get people out,” says Levy.
Most buildings should have emergency contact forms to get in touch with family members of the residents. Keep those updated.
(Real) Paper Trail
Your manager should keep communication channels open through e-mail, social media, cell phones – and good, old-fashioned paper. After the October storm, Blue Woods’s Wilson delivered news by distributing paper memos under the doors, because he wasn’t sure that his various electronic messages were getting through. The board/management should also have an updated paper contact list for all residents.
glow stick suppliers: