10 ways to Sandyproof your building (or at least improve your chances)

10 ways to Sandyproof your building (or at least improve your chances)

By Jill Krasny  | December 10, 2012 - 10:42AM

Of all the New York neighborhoods slammed by Hurricane Sandy, Battery Park seemed to emerge the strongest. 

The buildings didn’t flood, many of its residents stayed put and most had power. In fact, wrote the New York Post’s Max Gross, the storm did wonders for the area’s real estate market, which quietly boomed while the rest of the city was left to pick up the pieces. And much of that was due to infrastructure in place in the newish buildings in the neighborhood.

Storm-proofing has never come cheap, but there is plenty one can do to ensure a building and its residents remain safe. 

We checked in with some NYC property managers and structural engineers and architects for some tips on how your building should be prepping now for the next powerful storm:

1. Prepare and equip your staff 
If you don’t have conversations about preparations now, you’ll be sorry, warns Michael Wolfe, a Midboro property manager who consulted with all his building staff and superintendents beforehand. 

“When Sandy hit, we made sure our staff was ready. We made provisions for that,” he says. 

Wolfe held several emergency meetings with staff to go over storm preparations like evacuations and what to do when power went out, and he distributed emergency numbers for all vendors and put a “crisis team” in place in case anything went awry. 

He directed emails to a shared emergency e-mail account, which made it all the easier for everyone to stay informed. Then he ensured that all building workers had access to hotel and cab services, so they, too, weren’t left in the cold. 

Anthony Colella, a property manager with Tudor Realty who oversees units in the Bronx and Brooklyn, says “getting supplies to the building,” like water, blankets, batteries and glowsticks for hallways, was his next priority after meeting with staff. 

He made a checklist of everything needed then made absolutely sure every superintendent received it and purchased the supplies.

2. Alert residents
“People did not take [the threat of Sandy] as strongly as they should have,” says Wolfe, which didn’t always bode well for residents or managers who felt responsible for them. 

But Wolfe was prepared: He alerted residents before the storm arrived Monday to stock up on batteries and food, then collected everyone’s contact information and asked who planned to ride the storm out.

Additionally, he asked residents to close their faucets so they wouldn’t risk flooding their unit when water returned. (Good advice, it turns out.)

Colella, meanwhile, alerted residents every hour by phone and email, and also knocked on doors routinely to see how they were. 

“People were concerned about power, elevator access and water,” he says, and they needed to feel secure. 

3. Move supplies and shut off mechanicals
To prepare for possible flooding, supplies in flood-vulnerable buildings should be moved out of the basement and into “package rooms” on the top floors, says Colella, who oversees a diverse range of pre-war buildings in Manhattan.

“You can never be fully prepared if you’re in a flood zone,” he notes. However, among the items he moved were spare machinery parts from generators and boiler rooms, if not the generators themselves. 

“If you’re in a location that's prone to flooding, you have to basically have a protocol in place for shutting down mechanical systems,” adds Peter Varsalona, a professional engineer with Rand Engineering & Architecture.

He recommends checking systems before and after the storm to assess any damage, and keeping the phone numbers of the people implementing them on hand. Checking the systems "is the most critical role,” he says. 

“I think some managers may not have a full understanding of their systems, so they may not realize if they lose power, they may lose water, too.” 

When ConEd told Collela that power would be turned off, he methodically shut off every apartment to make sure he didn’t short any circuits or leave anyone stranded in an elevator. 

4. Inspect all your systems now
If you haven’t already, make a date with a registered architect or engineer to see where your mechanical systems -- like the boiler, water pump and electrical circuits -- stand. There may be protections that could be installed to help protect heating, elevators, electrical, etc., such as a “break wall,” a tall, concrete wall that can help stave off flooding.

Or maybe you want to relocate them higher up--perhaps even to the roof if feasible--if they’re currently in a low-lying area. 

“They'll give you options for the cost, and do a feasibility study to help the owner determine where to replace or relocate these systems,” Varsolona says. 

With that information, your building can prioritize what needs to be done and come up with a game plan for before, during and after the storm.

Finally, make sure all your units are airtight, says Dennis DePaola, executive vice president of Orsid Realty.

“If buildings have small leaks, make sure basement sump pumps and elevator shaft pumps are working and batteries have backup,” he says. “You don't want to have the boiler go out. That’s particularly vulnerable.

A lot of old rooms have leaks in foundation or are near underground streams, which is normal. They have a pit dug into basement floor so the water collects there and the pump pumps it out into the drains and into the sewer.” 

And make sure the pumps are working all year round with backup systems.

“They should be oiled and greased and checked all year,” says DePaola. He recommends alternating between back-up pumps and regular pumps during non-storm times "so they don't burn out so quickly. Have them inspected regularly, daily and weekly.” 

5. Consider getting a generator 
Generators are not only incredibly expensive, but difficult to install in many buildings. “It could be a $100,000 or more investment for a rainy day event,” Wolfe says, so it might be smarter to opt for a smaller unit that just powers the hallway and lobby lights. 

That said, “if you've had a history of power outages and your population really needs power at all times, then you need to look at them very seriously,” says Varsalona. Long before a storm, “perform an engineering/architecture study and speak to contractors who install these and ask people who've used them.” 

Naturally, you'll want to install generators in an area of the building not vulnerable to flooding.

6. Clear the drains 
This is a must, says DePaola, who recommends clearing gutters, scuffers, drains and terraces of any debris, leaves or loose matter. 

“Some buildings are like a wedding cake,” he says, “so make sure plants and trees are cleared so it doesn't become a pool.” 

As co-op and condo lawyer Dean R. Roberts of Norris Mclaughlin & Marcus told BrickUnderground, clients who "simply maintained their drainage systems properly fared better than those who had clogged drains."

7. Tie up loose ends
Sandy wasn’t so much a rain as a wind (and storm surge) event, says Wolfe, so make sure all the terraces on your buildings have tied their furniture down securely and remove any loose materials.

“We started doing this before the storm came,” he says. “We had contractors bring the scaffolding down and loose building material removed to batten down the hatches.”

Chuck deSanto, an architect with Walter Melvin, did the same thing: “Most buildings we’re involved with are undergoing construction at some level, so the building department was proactive in advance of the storm.” 

He visited every site with a structural engineer to make sure everything was secure, including projects in mid-construction. He also took any materials off the roof that had potential to become airborne. 

Eric W. Cowley, owner of Cowley Engineering, kept close watch on the roofs. “You get a lot of negative pressure across flat and pitched roofs, and as wind rushes by, it sucks the roof off,” he says.

He recommends investing in $1 “hurricane clips” at the hardware store, along with windows that can withstand wind pressures above 11 mph.

Speaking of windows and doors, make sure they’re all watertight so minor leaks don’t become major. This goes for stairwell doors and elevator bulkheads as well, says DePaola. 

8. Keep stairways well-lit 
For his part, Wolfe gave his staff glowsticks for hallways, lanterns for lobbies and portable generators several days later when they became available. 

Orsid's DePaola went one step further, stripping glow tape along the walls and top of the landings in stairways. 

Battery packs for emergency lights only last a few hours, he says, which many people realized when the power went out during Hurricane Irene.

Property managers can hire contractors to slick down the tape, or do it themselves after hitting the hardware store, which may be cheaper but line up less evenly. 

9. Make arrangements to refill your watertank in an extended blackout 

Most buildings rely on an electric pump to push water past the 6th floor.  That means no more water once the watertank runs out, typically in a day or two.  

Wolfe, the Midboro property manager, loaded a truck with a large generator, then hired a licensed electrician to tie the electricity lines from the generator to the pump so they could fill up with water.

Once one building had water, he moved onto the next, repeating the process until all of his buildings had running water.

“The residents were ecstatic,” Wolfe says of his ingenuity. “I knew if I could power the pumps, I could fill up the tank and give people water. It cost $1,000 a visit, but it was worth it.”

10. Assess the damage afterward
“After the storm, we visited every one of our buildings to meet with the staff and make sure there was no damage,” explains Wolfe. “And if there was, we dispatched help.” 

Wolfe also took care not to shock the building circuits when power returned. 

“We didn’t want to cause a power surge and damage anyone’s building,” he says, so they turned the power on unit-by-unit. “Many residents had vacated, so they didn’t notice the difference.”


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