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Surviving the Woolsey Fire: A Self-Storage Professional Shares Her Story and Disaster Advice

A self-storage professional who lives in California shares the story of being evacuated during last year’s Woolsey Fire as well as advice for others in the industry who might one day find themselves facing natural disaster.

The morning of Friday, Nov. 9, 2018, was pretty normal. I sent my daughter to school and headed to work. What I didn’t know was I wouldn’t be able to return home for more than 10 days.

The Woolsey Fire had started the day before in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties. Fires are common in Southern California and especially dangerous for residents of Topanga Canyon, where I live. Our canyon is narrow and full of older houses, trees and shrubs, which make it easy for fire to spread. Thankfully, this blaze was nowhere near us, so there was no reason to worry—or so I thought.

Enduring Evacuation

That morning, the fire was in Agoura, about a 30-minute drive north. While I knew I needed to keep an eye on it, it seemed there was no immediate threat. At 1:41 p.m., however, Topanga Canyon Emergency Preparedness announced that all zones were under mandatory evacuation.

The reality of what that means quickly goes through your head. Luckily, my landlord lives upstairs from me and was able to retrieve a few of my irreplaceable items, such as photographs. Everything else had to be left behind. I had also carpooled to work that day with a co-worker, which meant my vehicle was in the evac zone.

The two of us spent the next four hours monitoring the fire and figuring out where to go. We thought this would be a 24-hour thing and we’d be home by Sunday at the latest. Boy, were we wrong.

One night turned into 10, and it was a crazy journey. The fire affected so many people—a quarter-million had been evacuated—that finding local accommodations was impossible. By the time we started looking for hotels, they were all booked. That first night we were able to find lodging 60 miles away, but the hotel could only accommodate us for the one night. Hotels were either full or too expensive, so we moved around quite a bit. We had no extra clothes, toiletries or travel supplies. Everything had to be purchased.

To get updates on the fire, we relied on Twitter. Previously, this platform wasn’t even on my radar, but my opinion of it has gone a complete 180. I made sure to follow official feeds like my local fire and sheriff departments. Knowing what was going on without being glued to a TV was helpful. Twitter will continue to be my main resource when I need up-to-the-minute, accurate information on an incident.

Plan for a Disaster

You never really expect a disaster to strike but having a plan can be helpful. Have one for both your personal life and your self-storage business. On the personal side:

  • Know your insurance coverage. My co-worker found out after the fact that her homeowner’s insurance would cover 100 percent of her hotel stays for the evacuation. My renter’s insurance would cover up to $3,000 for the “loss of use” of my rental. Had either of us known that, it would’ve made things a lot less stressful.
  • Decide where you’ll stay. Have at least two places in mind. The earlier you can book lodging, the better—even proactively before being evacuated. Depending on the nature of the disaster and how many people are affected, lodging will fill up fast and become pricey. The hotel industry uses revenue management just like self-storage, and that becomes evident when you’re trying to book the last room.
  • Make a list. It should include the most important items in your home and where they’re kept. Arrange the list in order of importance. If you only have five minutes, work your way down the list until you must go.
  • Have an evacuation plan and follow it. Where will you and your family meet? What will you do with pets? How will you handle multiple vehicles? What about clothes?
  • Use storage! Sure, you may have a big house or nice garage, but consider using storage for items that can’t be replaced. This is especially important if you live in areas afflicted by wildfires, floods, hurricanes, etc.

On the business side, consider:

  • Insurance: Again, understand your coverage before something happens.
  • Access: Do emergency personnel have a way to access your property if they need to defend it? The Woolsey Fire burned trees and landscaping at Malibu Sky Self Storage in Malibu, Calif., but firefighters were able to protect the structures and no tenant belongings were damaged.
  • Employees: What will you do if your employees are evacuated but your business isn’t? Can you keep things running?
  • Customers: How can you help tenants who are affected by the disaster? Can you offer temporary discounts? Agua Dulce Storage in Agua Dulce, Calif., did just that when it heard a tenant’s house had been destroyed by mudslide a few years ago. During times of fire, the facility makes its horse trailer available to local equine-rescue groups at no charge. This serves the community and provides no-cost advertising for the business.

Serving Disaster-Prone Areas

If your business is in a disaster-prone area, advertise your assets. For example, it’s a great selling point to be able to say that you offer “security and fire-resistant construction” or whatever best describes your amenities.

Consider offering a discount or package for people who want to be more prepared. For example, because fire is such a huge threat in Topanga Canyon, many residents rent storage in the San Fernando Valley during fire season. If your facility has low occupancy, offer a four-month “fire-season special” and use it in your marketing. You can do something similar if your area is prone to flood and your site is on high ground. Give people an incentive to prepare by storing at your facility!

Nothing compares to living through a disaster. I can’t be more grateful for the efforts of the many individuals who helped extinguish the Woolsey Fire. We all know we should prepare, but that didn’t really hit home for me until I was caught up in this emergency. I was one of the lucky ones to be able to return home.

April Lee works in sales and marketing for QuikStor Security & Software, a provider of security and software solutions for the self-storage industry. She’s been with the company since 2008, working on various capacities including accounting and technical support. Her experience managing a 27-acre storage and parking facility helped give her hands-on storage experience, a foundation she draws on daily. For more information, call 800.321.1987; visit www.quikstor.com.

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