FM Frequency: Are You Lucky?

By Jeff Crane, P.E., LEED® AP
Published in the November 2004 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

When this issue goes to print, property owners and insurance companies will still be reeling from one of history’s most devastating hurricane seasons. Property damage, business disruption, and loss of life are likely to be tallied at numbers not seen since the dawn of modern meteorology when coastal inhabitants actually gained advanced warning of monster storms.

Having lived near the southeast coast for the majority of my life (Jacksonville and Clearwater, FL and Charleston, SC), I am familiar with our often defiant and violent relationship with Mother Nature. As a youngster, I occasionally missed school when public buildings were converted into makeshift evacuation shelters. As an adult, I’ve packed up family and pets for evacuations, helped neighbors stake or cut down damaged trees, replaced shingles on a roof, run from thunderstorms in a boat, purchased storm shutters, waited out tornado warnings in an interior room, waded through flooded streets, driven around downed power lines, and coped with extended power outages. As a facilities professional, I’ve acquired quite an education in hurricane tracking, meteorology, generators, and business continuity/disaster recovery planning.

Now I live and work about 200 miles from the ocean (Charlotte, NC). All I can do is helplessly watch the video footage of this year’s hurricanes and their aftermath.

From a safe distance and with my own property no longer at risk (well, not as much risk anyway), it is easier to wonder why people and businesses put themselves in harm’s way. From this distance, it also seems harder to understand why insurance companies and governments (local, state, and federal) allow—and seem to encourage—construction in low lying areas and near the water.

We’ll likely see insurance payouts from the 2004 hurricane destruction result in even bigger buildings built near the coast, only to be destroyed again with the next inevitable direct hit. New building codes make these structures more substantial, but waterfront communities typically incorporate a lot of glass and soaring heights, thus making these structures more vulnerable to winds that exert incredible forces on their walls, roof, windows, and foundations. There are very few construction methods that would be considered hurricane proof, and even fewer would be considered attractive.

But let’s not even consider the folly of constructing poorly manufactured facilities in hurricane prone areas. A thin sheet of aluminum surrounding a thin blanket of fiberglass insulation between 2x4s on a steel frame can barely keep out 95û F heat and humidity, let alone stand up to hurricane force winds at 75+ miles per hour. It’s mind boggling that thousands of these buildings populate coastal communities, that they are insurable, and that news reporters act shocked when their aluminum skins peel back like a banana’s during a storm.

I guess it doesn’t matter where we live or work; there will always be the potential for disasters, natural or otherwise. A stranded motorist on a rural road can freeze to death during a New England blizzard; a Midwest tornado can lift and toss a truck hundreds of yards; earthquakes can bring down structures and rattle windows for hundreds of miles; a swollen Mississippi River can consume homes in multiple states as it surges toward the Gulf of Mexico; and West Coast fires can engulf thousands of acres of property in a few hours. As we are also painfully aware, terrorism can strike anywhere, destroying property and lives in places as geographically and culturally diverse as Oklahoma City, Madrid, Baghdad, and New York City.

As facility professionals, we have an unenviable obligation to consider worst cases and plan for potential disasters. Unfortunately, there aren’t any “one size fits all” plans we can pull off a shelf or out of a box. Much depends on geographic location, facility construction, utility sources, and known risks.

But the key components of disaster planning include understanding the priorities of business and calculating the dynamics of the most critical, but moving pieces—especially people. Facility managers might build an underground, concrete-hardened bunker with three sources of power, “N+3” data center, multiple fresh water wells, satellite communications, oxygen generation, and plenty of food stores. But when people are critical to the operation of a facility and a Saturday morning flood or tornado wipes out roads and homes in a community, how many staff members will report to work on Monday?

Some carry their business continuity/disaster recovery plans with them. With advances in PDAs and technology, this type of data is more compact and mobile than ever.

But too many times, disasters can’t be precisely planned. There is no advance warning, and there isn’t time to search through volumes of information, hoping a specific problem has already been considered, addressed, and documented.

I have heard luck defined as “When preparation meets opportunity.” So I guess if we are lucky, thinking through worst case disaster scenarios and planning responses to situations we can imagine will create instincts that kick in when combinations of events that we never could have imagined suddenly become reality.

Crane is a mechanical engineer and regional property manager with Childress Klein Properties, a leading real estate developer and property management services provider in the Southeast.