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The Many Roles of a Property Manager During Disasters

Property management requires its workers to wear multiple hats. In addition to fulfilling roles as a human resources officer, maintenance specialist and accountant, property managers often have to address the unexpected—both from other people and Mother Nature—and serve as an emergency response coordinator.

Property management requires its workers to wear multiple hats. In addition to fulfilling roles as a human resources officer, maintenance specialist and accountant, property managers often have to address the unexpected—both from other people and Mother Nature—and serve as an emergency response coordinator.

During one of the education sessions at the 2018 IREM Global Summit in Hollywood, Fla., four CPM Members discussed some of the roles they have played during natural disasters at a panel discussion titled “Disaster Planning: How to Manage Civil Unrest, Hurricanes, and Earthquakes.”

Safety First
John Salustri, founding editor of GlobeSt.com, moderated the panel and first introduced Keishi Urata, CPM, CCIM and CEO of Yutaka Real Estate Corporation in Kumamoto, Japan.

Mr. Urata introduced a theme that was repeated by other participants: Property managers often have to ensure their own safety first.

Two massive earthquakes of magnitudes 6.5 and 7.3 struck Kumamoto City in April 2016. The first quake hit in the evening while Urata was out at dinner, and his first reaction was to return to his own home to check the situation. The second earthquake struck in the middle of the night a day later, so again he had to wait until daylight before beginning to assess the damage of properties he managed.

Michael Simmons, CPM, president and CEO of Community Realty Management, AMO, in Pleasantville, N.J., echoed this sentiment as it related to his experience with the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Saint Croix and the U.S. Virgin Islands: “Our employees have lived through this thing just like our residents have.”

Once Simmons’ team was able to get to their properties, they brought cash with them for employees because all of the ATMs were out. “They were extremely grateful,” Simmons said. This helped get their lives back together so they could focus on managing the properties.

Communication Breakdown
Property managers also act as an important point of communication between different stakeholders during natural disasters.

Jennifer Mesey, CPM, vice president of property management at the DCM Group in St. Louis, helped coordinate a response to the series of riots and unrest in Ferguson, Mo., following the police shooting of Michael Brown in August 2014.
Property managers were firstly responsible for communicating during the unrest, tracking news about protests on social media and keeping tenants informed of developments. This has been made easier and faster thanks to apps such as Everbridge “The days of creating a mass group in Outlook—those days have evolved,” Mesey said.

Property managers also helped restore confidence in the St. Louis market and trust in local law enforcement.

“What makes [the unrest] unique is the long-term effects,” Mesey said. “Our convention center downtown, these events are planned in advance, and we still felt the effect years later. We weren’t getting the number of events we had.” This in turn affected the retail in the area that thrived on convention business.

Mesey’s employees put together security committees to improve discussion about steps to be taken. They also purchased a radio tied to the police department and funded by tax money that allowed them direct contact with authorities.

They held events such as “Coffee with the Cops” and barbecues, and they invited police to help familiarize tenants with officers and encourage them to reach out when needed. “I often hear from tenants, ‘I really didn’t want to bother you,’” Mesey noted. “If reaching out to a property manager is hard, imagine how difficult it is to reach out to authorities.

For Simmons, even the simplest communication was difficult because the infrastructure had been destroyed. They eventually shipped satellite phones to their properties. “That’s going to be a requirement,” he said. “To always have minutes on those sat phones.”

Simmons also had to manage communication with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which had pressed the company for a restoration plan. “They were nibbling in our ears, and we were worried about people,” Simmons said. “Fortunately they listened to the industry and were forgiving and backed off a little bit.”

Checking the Details
One important point that has remained with Urata in the two years since the disaster is the need to check the facts. “After the earthquake, there were a lot of false rumors,” Urata said. “One was that a lion escaped from the zoo. It spread rapidly on social networking services.” Needless to say this was not true. “It’s very important to determine your actions based on facts,” Urata added.

Clarity is also critical when it comes to insurance claims. “If at all possible, try to have your adjuster at the site at the same time the insurance carrier’s adjuster is there,” Simmons said, “so you’re on the same page. There needs to be an agreement on what the scope of work is going to be. The regional manager also needs to know what our obligations are, what we have to provide the insurance company with.”

Mesey also supported this sentiment: “The easier you make it for the insurance adjuster, the more likely you’ll get the full claim.” She added that this occasionally requires project managers to resist their initial instinct. “The first instinct of a property manager is to fix it or clean it up,” she noted. With an insurance claim, however, property managers first have to think of themselves as documentarians. After they’ve documented all the damage, then they can work to make it right.

Simmons ended the session by noting that although property managers often play a lot of roles, they are ultimately leaders who must train their workers to make the best decisions. “They have to think, ‘I’ve been empowered to act up to this point, and I feel comfortable doing that with the support of the company.’”

About the Author:
Daniel Morales is international programs liaison at IREM Headquarters in Chicago.

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