*Editor's note: In anticipation of Hurricane Irma's possible landfall in Florida later this week, The South Florida Cooperator is featuring a selection of past articles on storm preparation, emergency planning, and post-storm clean-up. Florida readers are encouraged to pay close attention to federal, state, and local emergency information sources, follow any and all preparation and evacuation orders, and most of all, stay safe!
It’s an anniversary that Florida residents would prefer not to remember; a decade ago, Hurricane Wilma made landfall on the Miami coast, spawning 10 tornadoes, and a total of $20.6 billion in damage. At least 62 people lost their lives to the storm.
They are indeed, and it only takes one to cause dreadful wreckage like what Wilma left behind, but at least this year’s hurricane season was less ferocious than many previous years. At the time of this writing, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicted that the Atlantic hurricane season would have fewer named storms than historical averages, with six to 10 named storms, with a quarter of those developing into hurricanes. This was below the 30-year average of 12 named storms and six hurricanes, three of which would be classified as major. While tropical storms like this year's Erika may have dissipated before they reached full-blown hurricane status, they still had wind speeds that varied from 39-73mph, and left behind some flooding damage.
Hurricane season (which lasts from June to November), is technically over, but that also means it’s the perfect time to start getting ready for the next season.
You Need a Plan“The shared ownership statutes in Florida do not require associations to adopt an emergency plan, but they should,” says Donna DiMaggio Berger, a shareholder attorney with the law firm of Becker & Poliakoff in Fort Lauderdale and a member of the College of Community Association Lawyers (CCAL). “It is not the time to start thinking about how to batten down the hatches when you are under an emergency storm warning. Boards and managers need to start planning for the next season starting on November 1st.”
Berger says that communication is key. “Even though no one likes to think about hurricanes happening during the winter months—that is the ideal time to prepare and test a plan and to distribute it to the owners. The most highly functioning communities do have such plans—and they review them annually to see how they can be improved.”
Becker & Poliakoff hosts a disaster preparedness class for managers and HOAs, which provides attendees with a sample emergency plan. “Emergency preparation is similar to security measures in a community,” says Berger. “You need both the association members and the board playing a role. You can have the best security in a community (guards, gate, fence, cameras, roving patrols, etc.), but if an owner consistently leaves his or her car or house unlocked the chance for a loss increases greatly. The same holds true for emergency planning. You can have a building with a comprehensive emergency plan, but if the owners do not heed a mandatory evacuation order or fail to advise the board about their particular needs, then they may still be injured or suffer a devastating loss.”
Worrall urges all managers and boards to start their preparation by creating an evacuation packet for their residents. “Let them know where they need to evacuate to, including where the pet-friendly shelters are,” he says. “Other helpful checklists to include are medication lists and a list of in-case-of-emergency numbers, plus a list of what they should have on hand.”
Once the residents are adequately prepared, it’s time to make sure the building and the property will be secure. Along with the residents themselves, “It is the board’s fiduciary responsibility to protect the building,” says Worrall. “During a hurricane, you have to protect the expensive components, such as the A/C systems, emergency generator, light and fire systems. These are very costly to repair and replace, so during the storm you will need to disconnect those systems to protect them from power surges. If a surge is too strong, it will fry your systems.”
Whither the Weather?Once your hurricane preparedness plan is in place, it’s a waiting game to see if you’ll need to actually use it.
Back in August, James Franklin, the NOAA's Chief of Forecast Operations, sent out a warning that Tropical Storm Erika could become a bigger threat in the next five days. “A storm that forms out at sea, like Erika did, will take better part of a week to get to South Florida,” says Franklin. “You’ll see advisories many days in advance. We also put out notices about disturbances that can become tropical cyclones.”
These notices could not have existed even a decade ago. “Computer modeling has advanced so significantly over the last decade,” says Franklin. “We are in a much better position to predict when storms will form and where they will go. For example, in 2003, we introduced a five-day forecast for a cyclone and before that it was only 3 days. We are working on a six- and seven-day. Until 2013, our disturbance forecast was only 48 hours—now it’s five days.”
Franklin credits computer speeds. “The computing power we have now is 175 times faster than when Hurricane Katrina hit 10 years ago,” he explains. “When you have a faster computer, your model can see finer details in the atmosphere. It takes a snapshot of the atmosphere, including pressure, temperature and winds, and calculates it forward. The better your initial snapshot of the atmosphere, the better your forecast.”
Once the NOAA releases an emergency warning, it’s time to put your community's hurricane preparedness procedures into place. The warnings are released one of three ways: Either through the NOAA website, through online announcements, text advisories, or TV/radio alerts from the National Weather Service or through social media. Hurricanes are categorized from a Category 1 to a Category 5 with the winds of a Category 5 hurricane reaching 157mph or higher and potentially causing catastrophic damage. At some point, local municipalities might call for an emergency evacuation before the hurricane makes landfall. While naturally board members and managers are concerned for their neighbors' safety in a storm scenario, “It’s the residents’ decision to evacuate,” says Worrall. “The board and manager has no legal responsibility to evacuate anyone. Each resident is 100% at their own risk, and you are not liable to them.”
During the storm, and especially for those who for whatever reason refuse to leave, Worrall says that he lets the residents know that building systems will be turned off. “We let our residents know that there will be no elevator access, we turn off the air conditioning, and there may be no fresh water for three to five days after the storm until utilities are restored,” he says. “You need to communicate this effectively.”
Communication should also extend to the resident snowbirds. “In some communities, the residences are their second or third vacation home, so make sure they remove any projectiles from their balcony or terraces before they leave for the season,” says Worrall.
Are You Covered?When a hurricane hits, community administrators may have to make decisions quickly to minimize damage and disruption. It's therefore important to know the scope and extent of their authority in times of crisis. “Board members in Florida have the ability to enact emergency board procedures,” says Worrall. “Each board should review what those powers are afforded to them. For example, access to cash to stabilize the property. If you know what those powers are, you’ll be that much more prepared.”
When the warning went out for Tropical Storm Erika, Eric Glazer, founding partner of the law firm of Glazer & Associates, P.A. in Fort Lauderdale, and founder of the Florida HOA and Condo Blog, wrote about how often board members are unpleasantly surprised by how high their association’s insurance deductible is. “This happens all the time,” writes Glazer. “Associations know that their windstorm deductibles are normally about 5%. However, they have no clue what that 5% figure actually means. It does not mean that if the association suffers a $100,000 loss that the insurance carrier does not have to pay the first $5,000 and the association gets a check for $95,000.”
In reality, Glazer explains, the deductible is based upon the insured value of the entire property. “So, let’s say the entire property is worth $10 million,” he writes. “The deductible is five percent of $10 million – $500,000, in other words. It's often shocking when an association learns this.”
The bottom line is that these are all things that should be known before the first rain falls. While these hurricane preparation tips will help with next year’s hurricane season, there is also still always a possibility that a last-minute storm will brew for this season, so make sure your building, staff and residents are fully prepared at all times.
Lisa Iannucci is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The South Florida Cooperator.