Disaster Planning and Recovery for Self-Storage Operators

No matter where your self-storage facility is located, it could face a natural disaster. Here’s some information to help you prepare an emergency plan and specific steps to take after an event occurs.

By Donna Edwards

No matter where your self-storage facility is located, it could face a natural disaster: blizzard, hurricane, tornado, ice storm, earthquake, fire, flood and even a volcano. Some events may give you time to prepare, but many will come with no warning. Each creates its own specific challenges, but roof and building damage are common in most situations.

Site managers need to be prepared before a calamity occurs and have a plan in place. We’ve all heard “proper planning and preparation prevents poor performance.” This is certainly true when difficult events require crisis-management skills.

Preparing for a disaster doesn’t happen overnight. It includes thinking about what could go wrong, and then putting procedures in place for how to handle it. The following information will help you prepare for a potential disaster and outline the steps to take after one occurs.

Educate Customers

Customer education is an extremely important part of the preparedness process. The following questions should be addressed with tenants periodically throughout the year so there are no surprises if disaster strikes:

  • Do customers understand that the business insurance for your facility doesn’t cover their unit contents?
  • If you offer tenant insurance, do your customers understand what is and isn’t covered?
  • If customers are insuring the contents of their units through their homeowners, renters or commercial insurance policy, do they know their deductible, and are they prepared for the claims process?

Create an Emergency Binder

Every self-storage operator should create and maintain an emergency binder containing key information for facility employees. If managers are unable to return to work following an emergency, or personnel from another facility or office step in to help, the binder can serve as a central point of documentation to help reopen the site. It should be wrapped in plastic, stored in a safe place and updated regularly.

In addition to procedures to follow, the binder should contain phone numbers and other contact information for the following (remember, the office computer might be damaged during a disaster situation):

  • Local fire and police departments as well as other emergency personnel
  • Any utilities your facility uses (electricity, gas, sewer and water)
  • Contractors (electricians, general contractors, glaziers, plumbers, roofers, security technicians, water extractors)
  • Temp agencies you can hire to help clean up
  • Maintenance companies that can assist in getting the site up and running
  • Government contacts (building inspectors, permitting and others needed to resume operation)
  • All customers

Your binder should also include “before” photos of the facility, including every building, the office interior and exterior, the parking areas, the roof, etc. Laminate a facility map or site plan, which you can use for preparations before and cleanup after an incident. Have additional building-map copies handy for noting damage or affected units.

Be Prepared

In the face of an imminent disaster, there are things you can do to minimize injury and damage. Your preparedness plan should include the following:

  • Back up the computer data to the cloud or download the information to a flash drive. If you’re using a backup device, store it offsite.
  • Board the windows.
  • Raise computers and other equipment off the ground.
  • Secure customer files.
  • Do whatever you can to protect gate equipment and security components.
  • If possible, purchase a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration radio or otherwise ensure you have access to weather alerts and warnings.
  • Check all emergency lighting, fire extinguishers and other equipment that can help you clear debris and secure the facility.
  • Clearly mark the escape routes for every building.
  • If possible, gather any staff and customers who are onsite during the event in an interior room with no windows.

There are also several items you’ll want to have on hand for a crisis such as a first-aid kit, batteries, flashlights, non-perishable food and water. Materials such as metal sheeting, plywood, tarps and a wet/dry vacuum are helpful for damage control. A battery backup or generator can keep office equipment running during an extended power outage. Blank leases are helpful to have on hand in case you need to rent a unit and computers aren’t operational.

Steps to Recovery

Following an emergency, you’ll likely feel shaken up and possibly overwhelmed. It’s critical to remain calm, breathe deeply and make sure you get plenty of rest. Recovering from a disaster can be a long, tiring and tedious process during which everyone will be stressed. Follow these guidelines to keep everyone safe while you get the property in order.

1. Have a clear chain of command. Who will make statements to the press? Is there a format you’ll follow? Who’ll be responsible for additional public updates? It’s important everyone is in agreement about what the message will be, when it’ll be released and who’ll give it.

2. Take photographs. Following an emergency, it’s critical to document the state of the property. Even if you don’t see obvious damage, issues may arise later and photos will be helpful.

3. Check the office. Can you work in the office or do you need to set up a temporary one elsewhere on the property? What are the most critical steps to make the facility safe for staff and customers and secure their stored goods? Call your property-insurance representative and request a site visit. Then, start making your repair calls.

4. Communicate with customers. Call or e-mail all customers to let them know the status of the property. If landlines are down, you’ll need an alternate way for them to get in touch with you. This could be a cell-phone number, the company’s regional office or an e-mail address. After this initial contact, send regular e-mail updates to let customers know the status of recovery including any access restrictions, building damage, repair timelines and other important information. Use your social media pages to spread your message as well.

5. Keep the site safe. Don’t let customers on site until all of the buildings have been declared safe, your insurance representative has visited, and you’ve taken extensive photos of the property. Don’t risk life and limb to inspect damaged buildings. In the event of a serious structure collapse, a building inspector will need to ensure it’s safe to enter. If a building is unsafe or condemned, check with local officials to see if they’ll allow you to stabilize it so the insurance adjuster can verify damage to units. If not, all the units will be considered a total loss.

Once buildings are declared safe, contact the tenants of any affected buildings and set up a time for each to come to the site and document any damage to their unit with a facility employee. (Wet items will need to be dried and cleaned as soon as possible to prevent mold and mildew.) Ask all other customers to avoid visiting the property for at least a few days or a week.

6. Secure the facility. Lock the gate, secure breaches with temporary fencing and restrict access to office hours. Also, accompany all customers on the site until repairs are complete. If necessary, secure the buildings with locks, metal sheeting or plywood to prevent looting.

Your customers will have many questions including what was damaged, how bad is it, when they access their unit and who’s going to pay for ruined items. Answer them the best you can. In a crisis, being prepared for the possible and being in control if something occurs will help you and your customers weather the storm.

Donna Edwards is a manager at Plantation Self Storage in Bluffton, S.C., which is operated by Southeast Management Co. She joined the company in 2013 and has more than 10 years of experience in property management. Her marketing experience includes setting budgets, designing yearly marketing plans, and creating and writing all types of advertising. For more information, call 843.815.8000; e-mail [email protected]; visit www.southeastmanagementcompany.com.

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