It’s never too early for self-storage operators to create a plan for facing extreme weather. Mother Nature can change her mood in a heartbeat, and you need to be prepared. For example, in the last two years in Coastal South Carolina, we’ve experienced two hurricanes (Irma and Matthew) and a freak winter storm (Grayson). While hurricane preparedness is fairly routine for most of us around here, the snow and ice was a bit of a challenge.
Following is advice on how to prepare for a natural weather disaster and what to do during and after the squall.
Before the Storm
Have a plan (or multiple plans) in your facility operation or emergency-preparedness manual for dealing with hurricanes, winter storms, tornadoes, floods or any other dangerous weather indigenous to your area. Evacuation routes, shelters and communication avenues should be laid out in plain English and understood by everyone before they’re needed. Contact information for local contractors should be in this folder, too. After all, you may need their help when this is over. Websites and e-mail addresses for local and state authorities such as law enforcement, and weather and storm centers, should also be included.
Your office and site prep should be pre-assigned, and everyone should know what to do before it needs to be done. This might include boarding up windows and doors, securing files and computers, and protecting office equipment from rising water. Have any necessary materials on hand at all times, not just when you think you’ll need them. For example, you might need wood and nails for boarding windows, sandbags for doors, salt or de-icing chemicals for sidewalks, etc.
If you fly any flags at your facility, it’s best to lower and secure them prior to bad weather. This goes for other loose items outside such as benches, trash cans and signage. You don’t want anything that could become a missile outside the buildings!
If your company has a computer guru or information-technology person, make sure he knows what’s going on. He can help back up information so it isn’t lost.
Finally, regularly remind your tenants about their insurance coverage options and ensure they understand the limitations. Once a storm is named, some companies won’t honor new policies, so get tenants signed up at the beginning of the season or when they sign the lease.
Facility Closure or Evacuation
When awaiting an extreme weather event, it’s wise to close your self-storage facility. You might even need to evacuate the premises or area.
If you close, make sure tenants know as soon as possible so they can get anything they might need from their unit before the facility is locked down. Don’t just hang a sign in the window; notify them by e-mail, social media or any other available method. You can include information in your voicemail greeting as well. If conditions are too dangerous to drive, discourage them from visiting the property. It’s not worth them risking personal injury or damage to their car.
If you have automatic gates, they should be locked in the down/closed position and powered off. This will prevent access to the facility during the event, but it’ll also help prevent injury to customers and staff as well as damage to the gates in high winds.
In the event of evacuation, you can alert tenants via e-mail regarding weather conditions and evacuation routes. Include links to local authorities, such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Weather Services and local shelters. Phone lines may be jammed, so having more than one mode of communication is essential. Pre-paid cell phones are always a good idea. We have one for after-hours emergencies and it really came in handy during our evacuation for Hurricane Matthew. Finally, let your alarm company know you’re evacuating and ensure it has the correct contact information for you and other staff.
If it’s OK with your owner or supervisor, add access to company e-mail to your laptop or tablet during the event (you can remove it when it’s all over) so you can reply to customer messages. Remote access to your security cameras can be helpful, too. This enables you to monitor conditions at the facility.
During the Storm
During the storm, use social media to your advantage. Share local weather reports as well as comments and posts on conditions, especially from local authorities. Your tenants can also message you through for updates and information.
Communicate with your tenants as much as possible through e-mail, Facebook, Twitter … anything! Some management-software programs will even allow you to securely and privately send a group e-mail via the platform. Some of your customers could be out of the state or even the country and will appreciate the updates.
Make sure customers know the facility is closed and they shouldn’t be there. If you’re not on site, make sure your owner or supervisor knows where you are and how to get in touch with you. Most important, let him know you’re communicating with your tenants. Our owners are out of state, so we send them all the same information we send our customers.
Finally, rest up and keep your cool. The next few days may be exhausting.
After the Storm
Once the storm has passed and you can return to the property, inspect the grounds and buildings for stability, downed power lines, damage, etc. Inform your owner or supervisor of your findings. Provide your honest opinion, in writing, regarding the safety of the facility and whether conditions are safe enough to reopen. E-mail your tenants to let them know you’re back and doing everything you can to protect them and their property. Once you’re satisfied that you’ve established an acceptable level of safety, you can inform them they’re allowed back on site.
Take a lot of pictures and keep them on file for repairs and a record for next time. Encourage tenants to take photos of their belongings once they come by to inspect everything. These will help in insurance claims as well as building repairs, if needed.
Remember those contacts we talked about earlier? Now’s the time to use them. Start with the most damaged part of the property and work your down. It took us a few weeks to finally get a tree company on site to help after Hurricane Matthew, so don’t get discouraged if the first contractor you call says “no.” Just move on to the next.
As repairs or cleanup get under way, let tenants know where and when crews will be working (trees, rooftops, driveways, etc.) so they don’t walk under or through a potentially hazardous area. For example, you might say, “Crews will be clearing downed trees by Building A from (date) until (date), so please exercise caution.” Also, it’s OK to limit access to buildings for safety reasons. Customers might not understand why, but you’re responsible if something happens to them. As repairs end, thank them for their patience and understanding.
Once it’s all over, start planning for the next weather event using what you learned from this one. It’s never too early (or late) to communicate around a natural disaster. The more you keep tenants notified of site conditions, weather alerts and local situations, the better they’ll feel in their choice to store their property with you. While it’s not something you have to do, it’s something you should do, as it will help set you apart from competition.
The feedback we received after Hurricanes Matthew and Irma and Winter Storm Grayson was that of gratitude and appreciation. Several of our tenants live out of state and a few live and work out of the country. All were thankful that we kept them informed. Your owner or supervisor will feel better, too, knowing he chose to hire someone like you who’s looking out for his investment.
Kevin J. Edwards joined Southeast Management Co. in 2016. He and his wife, Donna, are property managers for Plantation Storage and Plantation Wine Cellars in Bluffton, S.C. To reach him, call 843.815.8000; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.