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Coping with catastrophe - what to do when hell freezes over.

Coping with Catastrophe - What to do When Hell Freezes Over

Earth-shattering explosions. Natural catastrophes. Paralyzing cold. These are some of the emergency situations which property managers have confronted. Some disasters, such as hurricanes, can be anticipated. Others strike quickly, unexpectedly, and often leave devastation in their wake.

One of the hallmarks of a good property manager is having an emergency plan is place before the event, charting a logical sequence of actions to be followed when the normal systems go haywire.

The following stories will show you how two property managers faced disaster and how well their planning mechanisms and coping techniques met the needs of tenants and owners.

Thunder in the valley

The first explosion occurred just before noon on a warm, sunny Wednesday early in May 1988. The sound was quickly followed by a mushroom-shaped cloud, which rose from the valley outside Las Vegas in the town of Henderson, Nevada. Two people were killed, 300 were injured, and millions of dollars of property damage was triggered when a small fire at Pacific Engineering & Production Company of Nevada (PEPCON) quickly spread out of control. Among the chemicals produced at the PEPCON plant is ammonium perchlorate, a highly flammable component used in solid rocket fuel.

Within 10 minutes of the fire's outbreak, the first of four earth-shattering explosions occurred, followed quickly by three more, sending out shock waves which rippled across the desert and overturned cars, crumpled railroad freight cars like squashed beer cans, blasted gaping holes in buildings more than a mile away, shattered thousands of windows throughout a five-mile radius, jolted a passenger jet flying overhead, and knocked out power to 15,000 homes in the surrounding areas. The blast measured 3.5 on the Richter scale and was felt in downtown Las Vegas, 12 miles northeast. A candy factory 200 yards from the PEPCON plant was engulfed by the explosion and burned to its foundation.

Barbara Holland, CPM[R], president of H&L Realty and Management, manages two apartment buildings with 220 residential units and two office buildings with about 30,000 square feet of office space, all located in Henderson. One of the most unsettling elements of the situation, she said, was that for several hours after the blast sounds, few people in the surrounding area knew the cause of the explosions.

"We're located in a three-story building in downtown Las Vegas. We felt the building sway and thought it was from a nuclear test in the town of Mercury, Nevada, where they do planned test explosions. Other people thought it was a sonic boom. Then we looked out the window and saw the mushroom cloud in the southeast, the wrong direction for a test. For a while, we thought it might have been a plane crash at the airport. Then we saw more smoke, followed by the sound of other explosions. In the meantime, local radio and television stations and TV were offering conflicting reports.

"Finally, about two hours after the blast, we were told that an explosion had occurred at the PEPCON chemical plant in Henderson and were warned not to go out because the chemicals involved in the explosion had poisoned the air. Residents were told to shut their windows and turn off air conditioning units to avoid recirculating outside air. Also, for quite a while, the possibility of

further explosions remained.

"People were cautioned to stay off the roads because of the possibility of additional explosions, thus preventing us from going to check on our properties. So for a long time, we had no idea what was happening at our buildings.

"Even after we were told the nature of the blast, we couldn't contact our maintenance crews or our onsite property managers. You see, right after the explosion, almost everyone in the area began phoning to make sure their families were okay and to call the authorities for information. The telephone lines quickly became overloaded, and the telephone company shut down most phone lines, handling only emergency calls. The inability to communicate was a real problem, compounded by the lack of solid, reliable information."

The damage: "When we could finally make verbal and visual assessments, we found that of all our properties, the worst hit was Henderson Industrial Park, a brand new, one-year-old complex, with two sister buildings of 12,500 square feet each of office and industrial warehouse space.

"Most tenants went outside after the first explosion to see what had happened, so the majority of them weren't in their offices when the second explosion occurred and weren't injured when the ceiling and duct work fell. But tenants who stayed inside their offices were thrown from one side of the room to the other by the force of the blast, and one tenant was injured by flying glass.

"The other building on the east side of the industrial park had stucco work on the front and cement on the back wall, and even though it was further away from the blast site, the damage there was worse.

"Both buildings had to be practically rebuilt. Our structural engineers found they had to take off the roof and tear down some walls. They saved whatever elements they could, but it was impossible for our business tenants to use their offices, so we ordered mobile office units, and tenants worked out of these for three months while repair work went on. We dug underground trenches to connect these mobile units with water, sewer, and electric lines and offered an abatement of rent and common area charges.

"We also manage two residential buildings called Newport Cove, about 20 miles from Henderson. Their windows were blown out, and the chemical smoke was headed in their direction; luckily, the wind veered abruptly, and they didn't have to evacuate.

"When we finally got access to telephones, we first called our own family members both here and out of state, to reassure them that we were okay. Next we contacted our buildings to assess the damage, then called maintenance crews and sent them to the buildings to begin boarding up windows, repairing twisted door jambs and window frames, and cleaning up glass and other debris. We also called our owners to let them know the extent of the damage to their properties.

"We also manage Boulder Professional Building, about 3 1/2 miles from the PEPCON plant. Following the blast, we had bought up all the plywood we could lay our hands on so we could begin boarding up our properties. But we found we couldn't get anywhere near the Boulder Professional Building property for several days because one of the tenants is a bank, and the National Guard had been called out to protect such locations.

"In spite of all the uncertainty, none of our people hesitated to visit and make sure things were okay, even though, for a while, there was the threat of additional explosions. Tenants, landlords, managers, crews, contractors - everyone worked together until far into the night to secure the buildings and clean up the debris.

"Over the next few weeks, the people in my office spent literally hundreds of hours listening to and reassuring the tenants at Henderson Industrial Park. Many of them were in shock. We reassured people that we were rebuilding and cautioned them that they had to stay on the premises in the mobile offices in order not to violate their lease agreement."

Future planning: When asked to assess the adequacy of disaster plans in coping with the kind of damage wrought by the PEPCON explosion, Ms. Holland said, "When property managers discuss emergencies, we tend to focus on contained situations, such as floods or fires that affect a single building. A community-wide disaster such as this isn't as easy to prepare for. Sure, it helps to have an emergency plan which is spelled out in an operating manual. But the question also arises - does your entire community have a disaster plan? And if it does, are businesses and the public aware of it?

"Two of the most vital needs in any emergency are for communication and transportation. If the phone system is knocked out and the police keep people off the roads, it's impossible to obtain or relay information. We need to work with community leaders and plan how to manage when our telephone and transportation systems go."

Ms. Holland was also asked what advice she could provide other property managers, based on her experience with the PEPCON explosion. She cited the need to make sure that all tenants are covered by their own insurance plans. "Our lease agreement stipulates that tenants must have insurance coverage against loss of business interruption, and we make it our business to get a copy of the tenants' insurance certificates before they move in so we can make sure they conform to the provisions in their lease. Tenants can get careless about this, so our computer system shows the expiration date of their policies, and we start calling them 60 to 90 days before expiration to make sure they renew.

"It took almost a week to get the mobile office units set up at the industrial park, and in the meantime our tenants lost income. In part because of our efforts, all our tenants were covered against this kind of loss."

When asked what she would do differently in the event of another similar emergency, Ms. Holland said, "We have instituted regular meetings of onsite managers to discuss what happens when phones go out. Our people now know that they should handle people problems first and building problems second. We also stress using a relay system for conveying information because our buildings are near each other.

"In addition, we make sure all building storerooms are stocked with extra plywood and that we have enough first aid supplies and manuals. Our buildings must have fire extinguishers in the maintenance room, in the resident manager's apartment, and throughout the building, and those fire extinguishers must be in good working order. We have seminars at our office where our people can learn how to use the fire extinguishers, and we have the Red Cross teach them CPR and other life-saving techniques."

And how have tenants responded since the PEPCON explosion? Said Ms. Holland, "All but one of our tenants in the commercial and office buildings returned to their quarters, and the explosion has had no effect on our commercial leasing to new tenants. In fact, we are now constructing buildings three, four, and five in Henderson Industrial Park, and we've had no problems leasing this space."

Baby, it's cold outside!

The winter of '89 is one that residents in Alaska will never forget. Record-breaking temperatures and tornadic winds resulted in merciless cold that snapped water and heat pipes, congealed motor oil, and froze exposed skin in minutes.

Charlene Hutton works as a property manager for TRF Management Corporation in Anchorage, Alaska. Two days before the disastrous cold disrupted operations at the facilities she manages, she had stepped off a plane after returning from a Hawaiian vacation. "There was a differential of 104 degrees between the weather I had just left in Hawaii and the temperatures back home in Anchorage," she recalled.

Ms. Hutton manages 178,057 square feet of commercial office space in Anchorage, plus 293,211 square feet of dock-high industrial warehouse space. The intense cold produced emergencies at both sites.

"On January 31st, the daytime temperature here in Anchorage was holding at about -35 degrees, with strong winds out of the north that produced chill factors of -80 degrees. Our buildings are designed to withstand a lot of cold, with temperatures as low as -40 degrees, but it was the wind chill factor that caused our worst problems.

"For instance, we have about 13,000 square feet of unoccupied space at the end of one of the buildings in the industrial space we manage, and that's where the trouble occurred. Drifting snow from high winds buried the building's gas meter under about five feet of snow. This caused a cavitation at the gas regulator, shutting off fuel to the heater in the unoccupied area. When the temperature dropped, the water in the sprinkler system pipes froze and the pipes burst. The first we knew of this was when we were notified by the tenant of water running under the demising wall into the adjoining space."

Ms. Hutton then put an emergency plan into effect. "We shut off the water supply to the sprinkler and opened the drain valve, then capped off the two supply lines going into the vacant space so we would have the balance of the fire suppression system available for the occupied space. We were fortunate because the water in the unoccupied space froze, so we could contain it, thus minimizing damage to the tenant space." TRF next contacted the firm's fire protection subcontractor, who repaired the sprinkler system and brought it back on line within a week.

About 10:30 the next night, in one of the suites in the office building complex managed by TRF, the cold temperature froze and broke the last fitting on the sprinkler system over a soffitted area of the building. "Fortunately, the water damage in that office was confined to some paperwork."

Ms. Hutton commended the Anchorage Fire Department for their timely assistance. "They were wonderful! They had 28 other calls that day for similar problems, yet they arrived onsite within 15 minutes of receiving the call. By the time I got there, they had already shutdown the water and opened the drain valve, and they were working with portable water extractors strapped to their backs. We brought in our own contractors to complete the water extraction and worked until about four in the morning."

Ms. Hutton does not pretend to be blase about the incidents. "When I first drove up to the office complex, what greeted my eyes was a very strange sight. As warm water from the sprinkler lines flowed onto the ground, it hit the cold air outside and began to evaporate. That sent up a big cloud of steam, and the whole side of the building looked like it was enveloped in a huge fog bank. It was pretty disconcerting, but looked worse than it was."

When asked if her preparations were adequate to the circumstances, Ms. Hutton replied, "My fire suppression contractor had shown us how to cope in case of a non-fire emergency. They told us that unless we could shut off the main water supply and open the drain line, the system remains pressurized and water will continue to flow. Then they showed us how to shut off the water supply and open the drains. That's really about all that could have been done to ensure minimal water damage occurred to the property."

Have she and her co-workers learned anything from the incident? "Yes, it's been a very educational experience, and we're taking measures to allow detection of a flood or a fire even more quickly in the future.

"You see, there's a flow switch which senses the movement of water in the line from the main water supply to the building's sprinkler system. When that flow switch detects water movement, it sets off an alarm bell that's mounted on the side of the building. But this building is located in an office complex on 18 acres of land. The occupancy hours of the complex are normally 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., five days a week. That alarm bell could ring for some time before someone could hear it if it were an after hours alarm.

"We decided it would be beneficial to have the alarm bell supplemented by a back-up system at another location, preferably one that's monitored on a 24-hour-a-day basis. So we're looking into the kind of system with a security contractor, where, if they detect anything, they call the fire department first, then the property manager.

"We believe the best policy is to keep hands-on at all times. Before winter sets in, it's a good idea to do a visual inspection to ensure that all systems are operational. Then, when you have unusual circumstances such as this prolonged cold period, it's important to make onsite inspections at least once a day, especially if you have unoccupied space. It's worth the extra expense to keep the heat turned up in unoccupied spaces. Even in Alaska, buildings aren't designed for this kind of heat loss, and there's really no way to cope with the abnormal cold produced by the high winds."

Did the flooding have a negative effect on tenant relations? "As a matter of fact, it was quite opposite; this incident helped us tighten bonds with our tenants. They said they really appreciated the way we responded and our concern for their safety."


These two property managers seem to agree that, while it makes sense to have an emergency plan, some disasters produce conditions which are impossible to anticipate or prevent. In that case, having competent professionals on staff and staying in close touch with tenants, owners, and authorities can go a long way to minimizing the effects of any catastrophe.

Cathie Rategan is an independent writed and president of Writer, Inc. She has headed her own business since 1979.

PHOTO : Earthquake-level tremors and a devastating fire damaged buildings miles away when the PEPCON rocket fuel plant exploded and burned.

PHOTO : The explosion buckled support beams and cracked walls at the year-old Henderson Industrial park.

PHOTO : No plumbing and sprinkler fixtures are equipped to handle temperatures of -85[degrees] F, even in Alaska.
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No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Title Annotation:property management in the face of catastrophes
Author:Rategan, Cathie
Publication:Journal of Property Management
Date:May 1, 1989
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