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After the Alarm

Co-op board president Michael Coopersmith was at work in midtown Manhattan on that afternoon last summer when he got the phone call we all dread: his Greenwich Village building, the Hamilton, was ablaze. “The first thing I heard was that my children were evacuating,” recalls Coopersmith, who immediately raced home. “I got out of the subway at Astor Place and picked up that smell I hadn’t smelled since 9/11 – it was our building burning.”

A block from the subway stop, acrid smoke filled the street like dense fog, obscuring the shattered window glass that crunched beneath Coopersmith’s feet. A ladder leaned against his red-brick, six-story building at the corner of Broadway and East 9th Street, as the bucket of a cherry-picker hovered overhead.

Two hundred firefighters had responded to the five-alarm call, and as Coopersmith made his way through them, he remembers his anxiety level rocketing from “a 2 or a 3 to well over 100.” Reaching the nearest police line, he says, “I told them I was the board president and my children were there, and talked my way through. At that point, it was total, absolute chaos.”

After Coopersmith determined that his family was safe, the questions started hitting him. What do I do now? Indeed, what does any co-op or condo board member do in a crisis such as this? What’s normal to expect? What should other people, such as the building professionals, be doing? For Coopersmith, whose building already had weathered Superstorm Sandy, some of the steps were familiar. Others, he says, were in “uncharted territories.” He knew the first step, though: keep the residents calm.

Stepping Up

As building staff and neighbors from surrounding buildings brought chairs for elderly evacuees, Coopersmith learned that the cavalry was on the way. Building manager Adrienne Alicea from RoseTerra Management and her assistant, Lia Chang, had been alerted by resident manager Barry Keogan. Alicea and Chang, rushing by cab to the scene, contacted Ed Donnelly, the company’s vice president of project management, as well as the building’s insurance carrier, Travelers.

Donnelly, who was at his home on Long Island, headed into the city. “En route, we were in communication with disaster-response teams like Maxons [Restorations] and some contractors that we knew would drop everything and come to the site,” Donnelly says. “I reached out to an electrical engineer and a structural engineer.” New York City Emergency Management, which responds to local disasters, had notified the Red Cross.
The fire was under control by the time Donnelly arrived on the scene. The blaze had started in the deli on the ground floor and shot up a shaft to the roof.

Coopersmith eventually stood on tree guard and got the milling residents’ attention, trying to keep them calm. “People are upset, you have to understand they’re upset,” he says. Among other things, they’re worried about pets that were alone in the apartments when the fire started. “You say, ‘We hear you. We need you to move over so the fire department can do what they have to do, and they’re going to get your pet.’” Coopersmith also told residents they needed to find a place to stay that night, which the Red Cross and Emergency Management could facilitate.Once the flames were extinguished, Donnelly, along with engineers and city inspectors, began examining the building. Their job was to determine how quickly essential services could be back up, and to mitigate immediate damages from fire, smoke, and odor. Once the building’s structural integrity was established, firefighters escorted in residents who needed to retrieve personal items. RoseTerra hired a security company to post guards at the entrances and engaged a lesser-known entity called a fire watch. These trained and certified individuals walk through fire-damaged buildings, reporting if smoke detectors go off or new fires ignite.

The fire was out. Now came the hard part.

First of Many Meetings

Around midnight, Emergency Management convened a meeting in its mobile command center. Alicea, Coopersmith, Donnelly and representatives from the Department of Buildings, the fire department, Con Edison, and the Red Cross attended. Another all-hands meeting was held at 8 o’clock the next morning. There was an emergency shareholders meeting that afternoon in a nearby auditorium at The New School. Future shareholder meetings would be held in a rented space at The Village Temple on East 12th Street.

“Most of the questions from shareholders revolved around environmental hazards – mold, asbestos, heavy-metal contamination,” recalls the board’s attorney, Ken Jacobs, a partner at Smith, Buss & Jacobs, who attended the meeting with board members, management representatives, and various city, utility and insurance reps. “It was important for the fire department and the Department of Buildings to admit not knowing all the answers until after their inspections of the property, and back up the board’s saying so. The board president ended up taking a lot of the heat himself. It wasn’t fair, but people expected him to somehow have superhuman awareness and superhuman abilities to solve their problems.” That was especially true for the small number of residents who carried no homeowner’s insurance. “You have to be sympathetic,” says Jacobs, “but you have to say, ‘The expense of dealing with this will fall on you. Yes, your maintenance will be abated, but the cost of replacing personal property is your responsibility.’ You say it matter-of-factly. They made a mistake. You don’t moralize.”

That meeting was the beginning of organized efforts to keep residents informed, which is among a board’s most important jobs in such traumatic situations. “People were grasping for communication,” says Coopersmith. “And because you’re dealing with a crisis, it’s changing every 15, 30, 45 minutes. You can put out a communication saying the building is not going be accessible for three days, according to the Department of Buildings – and then that changes that afternoon.” The board updated residents via email blasts through the notification system BuildingLink.

What do you tell people? “Boards need to tell shareholders where they are in the process, and that if they don’t know answers now, they will find out answers,” says Jacobs. “Our communication could have been better,” Coopersmith concedes. “We could have been more frequent. We could have sent out small bits of communication and made it a little more like a tweet [as opposed to longer emails]. Also, we should have let them know when the next communication was going to come out, and even communicated that we had no update.” Such steps can avoid a news vacuum that allows speculation to spread.

The Public Adjuster Arrives

By the morning after the fire, Maxons Restoration was clearing water from the lobby and ventilating the affected areas. After walking throughout the entire building with a structural engineer and a city inspector, Donnelly was able to get the DOB’s vacate order modified, which allowed residents on the largely undamaged 9th Street half of the block-wide building to move back in that day. Electricity was restored within 24 hours of the fire, though gas remained shut off as of early November. The lengthy, delicate process of abating the asbestos insulation from some plumbing and wiring was also continuing. Restoration work will continue for months to come.

All this has to be paid for, and fortunately the co-op carries insurance. Coopersmith also advocates hiring what’s known as a public adjuster – an advocate who negotiates with the board’s insurance company to make sure the co-op gets the proper payout. “You must, must hire a public adjuster,” Coopersmith says. “Do not try to do this just with the managing agent and contractor. The public adjuster has been the biggest godsend we’ve had. They can have the conversation with the insurance company in a language the company understands.”

The Hamilton’s public adjuster was John Panico of Affiliated Adjusters in Lake Success, New York. “We come on board and take over the management of an insurance claim,” Panico says. “It’s our responsibility to mitigate the loss, cooperate with the carrier, and prepare, present, and adjust the claim.” Public adjusters receive a percentage of the insurance payout.Panico describes his role as “a facilitator of the negotiation.” The board and the insurance carrier did have some disagreements about numbers, according to attorney Jacobs, but even before the public adjuster was hired, Travelers released a $2 million emergency advance. Panico then put together a 400-page estimate for the Hamilton’s loss. “The carriers will pay,” he says, “but the claim has to be professionally managed.”

Lessons Learned

The Hamilton still has a long way to go. No lives were lost, but 56 of the 214 apartments were destroyed, and no one can say for certain when they’ll be habitable again.In hindsight, Coopersmith says he would do some things differently. “A mistake I made was I took it all on myself, working two to three hours a day every day through July,” he says. “I should have delegated more to board members. We now have a committee in place, and I’m not the chair of the committee.”

One thing he’s doing now in preparation for any future emergency is to compile a list of disabled and senior residents, and anyone else with mobility problems. He’s developing a plan for getting them out of the building, and he’s also considering whether to have the board plan for residents to convene at a prearranged meeting place in emergencies.

“Every crisis you have, you learn from it,” he says. “From Sandy, we learned to buy a generator and glow sticks, so that when electricity goes out, we have the ability to charge staff members’ cell phones and to have lights. [We also learned] to have an executive committee meeting without the managing agent involved. There’s a certain point where we need to get ourselves on the same page as a board. You can work your issues out without anyone else there and come up with a unified approach.”

In the end, unity might be the most important tool for dealing with calamity.

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Aftermath First Things First

When emergencies occur, boards need to deal with the biggest problems first.

“The first real issues after a major casualty come up over the next 24 hours,” says the Hamilton’s attorney, Ken Jacobs. “How are you going to deal with security? If the building staff leaves, people can come in and loot the apartments. What about structural safety? And where are people going to gather? Can you get a school or a synagogue opened?”

The focus falls initially on management, which ideally arranges for an engineer to start checking the structural stability of the building. The first thing residents want to know is if they can move back into their apartments or need to find a place to spend the night. “Fortunately, New York City has decent emergency services that come in and have potential shelters for people,” Jacobs says. “But residents need to find their own locations.”

Communication is also vital. “Communication and reassurance,” Jacobs says. “A board needs to tell shareholders where you are in the process, and that if you don’t know answers now, you will find out answers. The board needs to be a sounding board, a place for shareholders to address questions.”

The managing agent will contact the building’s insurance carrier, but board members should remind residents to contact their own insurance brokers and explain what’s going on.

Finally, take care of your staff. “They were basically working around the clock,” says the Hamilton’s co-op board president, Michael Coopersmith. “So we made sure they were going home to get some sleep. You can’t continue to have them running 24/7. We brought pizza in for lunch, or passed menus around and told them, ‘Whatever you want for food, just get it. We’ll take of it.’ I was not concerned about spending a few hundred dollars on meals for staff that’s giving everything to us. They need to be taken care of and thanked considerably.” – F.L.

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