LIBERTY PROPERTY TRUST had a solid plan for Hurricane Harvey, but when it made landfall in Texas in August 2017, no one could have anticipated the full power of the record-shattering 50-hour storm. Once it hit, the company’s Houston office had to manage resources in ways that tested its plan and mettle.
Before the storm, the team positioned materials locally and near its Dallas office. They covered windows and door glass, and organized a system for checking on people – both employees and tenants – and buildings. They locked down vendor commitments for the supplies and services they expected to need after the storm. Tenant and vendor contact rosters became the core of their playbook.
After all that preparation, Liberty had to acknowledge the inevitable: some employees, tenants and vendors would be trapped in their neighborhoods, and it could be days if not weeks before they could get to the office. Some might even lose their homes. So the team purchased external phone batteries, charged up everything possible and stocked up on water and food. Then they collectively held their breath.
As the storm struck, Liberty’s first objective was to make sure its team was safe. Many employees suffered major damage to their homes, and one experienced the worst of it; her house was almost a complete loss. Fortunately, she was able to evacuate before being inundated by water.
With many roads impassable or unsafe and telecommunications networks severely impacted, it was imperative to work through a formal communications protocol. Mandatory twice-a-day team calls were held on a pre-set conference line. Those first calls helped to facilitate information sharing and focused heavily on how to best help employees and tenants in peril.
Almost immediately, the team reached out to tenants and vendors, tracking all of the information they provided in a commonly accessed “Contact and Property Triage” document. This Excel document became the core of the team’s efforts. It was an accessible way to collaboratively update information on each of the company’s 60 buildings in real time, including the work needed, status of insurance claims, and whether the tenants were, or could be, up and running.
This was a crucial step. While all team members were working from remote locations, everyone could use the document as a basis for their own plans and as a mechanism to communicate with Liberty’s national headquarters in Philadelphia and its sister office in Dallas, both of which stood poised to handle arrangements for additional help.
As roads cleared and utilities began to come back online, the Liberty team was able to access their office, which fortunately had not sustained any damage. The triage document then became the basis for the “war board,” a conference room wall filled with maps, property lists, condition reports and materials status reports. As the days went by, it became clear that Liberty had been very fortunate, as most of its properties were minimally impacted.
About 20 percent of the company’s buildings sustained damage of some sort, mostly by water penetration from sustained high winds that blew the rain sideways. Roadways and parking lots were flooded out, but Liberty avoided much of the flooding people saw on television because its industrial buildings are cross-dock facilities with dock doors that are four feet off the ground.
Yet mobility for the first couple of weeks after the storm was greatly impacted. The city was split in two as Buffalo Bayou breached, making what had been a 10-minute trip a frustrating two-hour excursion. Moving people and materials remained challenging – and at times, especially in the early days, dangerous – long after the storm was over. Team members focused on fixing what needed to be fixed, managing insurance company claims, helping employees and aiding with the real estate needs of others.
The war board was not only efficient; it also gave the team a sense of control throughout the recovery and expanded their ability to help the community, by identifying opportunities to use the company’s available resources to help those who didn’t fare as well.
The Red Cross, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and charitable organizations reached out to Liberty for assistance before, during and after the storm. Their needs ranged from short- to long-term use of space, often for sorting and storing building materials, fixtures, appliances and donations needed for rebuilding. The team was also able to identify some spaces they could offer free of charge to charitable groups. For example, a coalition of former military members began their service during the storm by rescuing people from roofs and flooded areas. Liberty provided them with a base for their operations, which enabled them to expand their support into the delivery of food, water, supplies and, eventually, bedding.
As Hurricane Harvey blew out of Texas, it made a beeline for Florida, another state where Liberty has significant holdings. The Houston team was able to provide the company’s South Florida and Tampa teams with ideas and suggestions that made their hurricane experiences safer and easier.
Today, people continue to ask if things are back to “normal.” In truth, there was no getting by Hurricane Harvey, but Liberty Property Trust managed to get through it. The company continues to streamline its crisis plans – there will always be a “next event” – and help those who, to this day, are still trying to recover.
Hans Brindley (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Houston market leader, Liberty Property Trust.