I knew there would be major issues when we arrived at our multi-level self-storage facility in New Orleans last summer. Hurricane Ida had hit the night before, and much of the city was in disarray. Power poles were lying on the ground like toothpicks, and many homes were boarded up.
When we forced open the door to the building, we discovered two feet of standing water. In all, 150 units had been affected by the storm. Where do you start with something like this? The city was without power, nothing was open, and all employees had been evacuated.
When faced with a natural disaster at your self-storage facility, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of damage. After that initial shock sets in, you’re hit with another wave, but this time it’s trying to figure out what to do next. There are many moving parts to a catastrophe, and depending on what you’re dealing with, you may not have the help or resources you need.
Nevertheless, one thing is for sure: You need to take time in advance to plan and prepare, so you can better manage your reaction and recovery. Yes, it’s unlikely that Boise, Idaho, will face a hurricane, but what about a fire or flood? Disasters happen, and you don’t want to add to your stress by being ill-equipped or not knowing how to respond.
The First Hurdle
I put disasters into two categories: local and regional. A local one is specific to your facility or neighborhood. For example, we had a fire at one of our self-storage facilities a few months ago in Owensboro, Kentucky. It was precise to that location. A regional disaster, like a hurricane, affects the entire area.
Either way, a disaster is a horrible experience, but there are a few key differences to keep in mind. If you’re forced to deal with regional event like a hurricane, tornado, earthquake or wildfire, you’ll have to compete for resources. Having been through two hurricanes, I can attest to how quickly fuel, food and supplies can run out.
There’s also a good chance that your facility staff will be evacuated or taking care of their family or home, so their attention naturally won’t be on your business. The fire I mentioned above was devastating for everyone involved, but the staff was at least able to come to work during the day and go home at night. The nearby Home Depot still had everything we needed, and we could quickly find the help and resources necessary to begin restoring the business.
They say an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. If you’re trying to figure out the safety and logistics of your self-storage operation after a disaster happens, you’ll always miss the mark. You need to prepare and make a plan part of your operating procedures.
Top Three Priorities
There are three top priorities when a catastrophe occurs at your self-storage facility. The first is to control the situation. The safety and security of staff, buildings and tenants’ items are No. 1. I’ve seen situations in which looting has occurred, trailers were stolen, and people were injured. Nobody wants this. So, secure your site as best you can, then you control the scene as opposed to it controlling you.
The second priority is to assess the true damage and know where to start. Depending on the situation, this might be daunting. However, you need to know what area is safe, what’s destroyed and what can be saved. This’ll help you gather the resources you need to start the long, painstaking journey back to “normal.”
The third priority is communication. You need some sort of system in place for staff, customers and vendors. During Hurricane Laura, which made landfall in Cameron, Louisiana in 2020, many people were unable to use their mobile phones until they were at least two hours outside the city. The storm had damaged all the cell towers. Make sure you have more than way to get information to people in case one fails.
Remember, you need to control the scene; don’t let it control you. Your self-storage renters will show up wanting to see their stored goods and get answers. If you can provide them with an avenue through which they can speak with someone, read about updates and get insurance forms, you can focus on the situation at hand. Let’s discuss that in more detail.
During and after a natural disaster, your self-storage customers need to know what’s going on at the facility and what’s expected of them. It’s essential that you be the voice of reason and a source of comfort during this critical time, using a straightforward tone that conveys confidence and security. You don’t want to make false promises, but your messaging should be supportive and hopeful.
If you lose power, will you still have phone service? Who will answer the phone? What should they say? How would you want calls handled? I recommend using every channel available—email, text and social media—to communicate with customers. Using multiple channels simultaneously helps you reach people wherever they are, which can vary in a disaster depending on the availability of power and access to computers or mobile devices.
Do yourself a huge favor and create a free website in advance of the coming disaster—something you can control and update without the assistance of a web provider. Then, you can add information as events unfold. This has become an invaluable tool for my company as we’ve dealt with these kind of events.
For example, let’s get back to the facility fire I mentioned earlier. Because we had a website, we were able to tell customers which units were damaged, which avoided the need for hundreds of people to rush to the site to check on their stuff. We also posted a special link for those tenants who had insurance, in case they needed to file a claim. We also created a way for people to book an appointment to visit their stuff. We sent the link to this website customer-wide via text and email. Any updates were made in one place all tenants could access, which greatly reduced the stress of front-line staff.
Insurance and Legal Concerns
Beyond dealing with the safety and logistics of a natural disaster, there are also self-storage insurance and legal issues to face. Thankfully, there are proactive steps you can take, such as offering a tenant-insurance or tenant-protection plan. In fact, I suggest you make coverage a condition of storing with you. Though some operators don’t feel comfortable “forcing” insurance, do your customers this service. I’ve had too many “Sorry, there’s nothing we can do” conversations with tenants, and it just breaks my heart. You don’t want to have these difficult interactions.
You can also do some prep on the legal side. The worst time to seek counsel is when you’re in a dire situation. Call your self-storage attorney in advance and ask about the steps you need to take in case of a fire, tornado, etc. For example, when can you start cleaning up your site and throwing away customers’ damaged items? What happens if one unit contains sensitive medical records? Document these procedures in your handbook, so they’re ready to go.
Another document you need to have on hand is a release of liability. In the event of a disaster, your tenants will want to see their units, even if only for some closure. If the area is structurally sound and safe, have each customer sign a release of liability. That way if they slip, fall or get hurt while on your property, they’ve acknowledged in writing that they were warned and chose to proceed of their own accord.
Until your self-storage facility is deemed safe, it must be secured by whatever means necessary. If you need to hire a gate company to section off the property or security to keep watch, do that. It’ll be some time before insurance agents, engineers, arson investigators or other necessary personnel are able to complete their work. Only then can clean-up and demolition take place. This might be a month-plus process, so be prepared for the long haul.
Also, it’s important to leave the clean-up to professionals. This isn’t the staff’s responsibility. They’re busy working with tenants and making sure nobody enters unsafe areas.
Once your tenants are allowed to enter their units, make it easy for them. You might request they make an appointment so staff isn’t overwhelmed and you can keep an eye on everyone’s safety. In addition, rent a few large dumpsters so tenants can toss items that can’t be salvaged. You might also supply gloves and masks as a courtesy.
It’s important to note that in the case of a fire, most items won’t be salvageable. Even those that are will likely be infected by smoke. While you may want to be nice and offer tenants a fresh unit into which to transfer their goods, you don’t want that smoke smell seeping into your units and buildings. Request that items be cleaned before going back into storage. If you don’t, the space will reek for months and even years to come.
I’m a big believer that overcoming adversity isn’t the result of luck but rather the time and effort put into preparation. Take an honest look at the strengths and weaknesses of your self-storage disaster plan. What can you do better? How can you ensure you’re ready for a crisis? Having a strategy will give you a head start in case you ever do encounter a catastrophe at your facility.
Rick Beal is co-founder of The Atomic Storage Group, a third-party management and consulting firm for the self-storage industry. His expertise includes business and management consulting, project management, marketing and pricing strategies. To contact him, email [email protected], or stay up-to-date with his publications and speaking engagements on LinkedIn.