How office property owners can prepare for hurricane season

Natural disasters have devastated cities across the country in recent years, and this year should be no different, especially for hurricane season, which is already here. Hurricane season in the United States officially began on June 1 and will continue until November 30. NOAA forecasters say this year’s season could bring more hurricane activity than usual, predicting a 65% chance of an above normal season. Nationwide, 40 million homes are at risk of hurricane damage. This less than rosy outlook could have a serious impact on the commercial real estate sector.

New York in the lead by CoreLogic list of metropolitan areas most at risk. At the same time, the states most at risk of damage and destruction are the southern states whose large coastlines are no strangers to devastating hurricanes: Florida, Texas and Louisiana. Major storms over the past 20 years, from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (one of the worst natural disasters in history) to Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and Hurricane Harvey in 2017, have wreaked havoc on people , cities and infrastructure. Since then, many cities and property owners have upped their game by preparing their properties for the possibility of a natural disaster.

Disaster relief

A decade after the 9/11 attacks devastated Lower Manhattan, the revitalized area, home to the nation’s fourth largest business district, suffered extensive damage from Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Office buildings along the waterfront were inundated by thousands of gallons of water from the storm surge, shutting down mechanical systems and crippling small businesses in the area. In total, the deadly storm caused tens of billions of damage across the region. New York City suffered $19 billion in damage and lost economic activity alone.

Once again, city leaders have pledged to rebuild, but this time to build for resilience. Major city projects are underway: Lower Manhattan Coastal Resiliency (LCMR), which aims to protect the area from daily flooding and storms; the Financial District and Seaport Climate Resilience Master Plan, described as a “model” of infrastructure that would prevent flooding from storms and climate change-related events; and the $1.45 billion East Side Coastal Resilience Project, parts of which have been pushed back by local residents.

In Miami, a metropolitan area with an office market totaling 100 million square feet, protecting the city from hurricane impacts has long been a priority. The most recent storm to cause significant damage was Hurricane Irma in 2017. Winds from Irma alone caused $19 billion in damage, according to researchers at Florida International University. After Hurricane Andrew hit Miami in 1992, Miami tightened its building codes to some of the strictest in the United States.

After one of the worst natural disasters in US history swept through New Orleans in 2005, the city has come a long way in rebuilding and building defenses. In the wake of Katrina, a $14 billion system of levees and floodgates was built to protect the city from future catastrophic flooding. This system was put to the test last year when Hurricane Ida made landfall in Louisiana. While the hurricane proved deadly, the barriers managed to keep the floodwaters at bay. However, other systems, such as electricity and water, failed. While cities have clearly made great strides in resilience efforts, a FEMA report released earlier this year found that most US states have outdated building codes for protection against natural disasters, including including hurricane-prone Louisiana.

Hold back the flood

For office owners and developers, the preparation must begin even before the building is constructed. One of the nation’s largest commercial real estate companies, Hines, is one homeowner who has learned the hard way over the years how to better prepare for the future. In 2008, Hurricane Ike devastated the Texas cities of Galveston and Houston, causing billions of dollars in damage. Jerry Lea, executive vice president of the Houston-based company, recalled how the electrical vault at the base of the company’s downtown office building was badly damaged during the deluge. “It was just grilled,” Lea said. “It was gone. We had to bring in generators and put them on the sidewalk, and we said “we’ll never do that again”.

Léa works on company projects during the pre-construction and design phase. After Ike (and later Hurricane Harvey), new development projects the company is working on in Houston – a city just 50 feet above sea level – will have mechanical systems installed in areas floodplains of the property and will be built above the 500 year floodplain. The developer recently opened Texas Tower, a 47-story skyscraper in the heart of downtown Houston that boasts one million square feet of office space. The large-scale building was designed to achieve several green building certifications. It will be the first building in the city to have an electric vault above the ground, according to Lea. The resort sits atop the building’s parking garage, 11 stories in the air.

Preventing a building from major damage in a storm means installing hurricane proof windows that can withstand massive wind loads. This is a feature that Hines adds to Texas Tower, even at lower levels, due to the potential for wind tunnel effects. The threat of wind is so great that Hines hires a company to run tests on a model of the property and surrounding buildings to help them decide what materials and special features to include during the pre-construction phase. High-tech sensors on the models can detect how much wind the buildings can withstand.

In the Flagler Towers luxury condo project in West Palm Beach, Hines is designing three 22-story residential towers located one block from the Atlantic Ocean. The city’s building code requires hurricane-resistant glass to withstand the impact of wind, salt spray and rising tides, a potent combination that Lea says has been described as “pulling a 2×4 with a cannon”. The company is looking to use limestone as one of the exterior elements, a product the company has tested extensively to ensure it can withstand sea spray and not deteriorate over time.

See also

Another project Hines is currently developing at Houston Medical Center Levit Green is a life science center. Although the building is located in an area unlikely to have as much wind impact, Hines is taking no chances. The building will have laminated glass to ensure windows remain intact and tenant research and projects remain safe. “Our tenants are constantly researching, and it can take years,” he said. “They could be two years into the search and lose it all – millions of time dollars.” Levit Green will also be fully equipped with emergency backup generators.

See also

Whether or not an office building is built with special hurricane-proof features, owners can take important steps now and in the days before an expected storm to be better prepared. Property managers should first provide building tenants with a detailed emergency action plan and ensure they have open lines of communication, which Lea says is crucial. “It’s all about people’s quick reactions and feedback to the occupation of the building.”

In a hurricane, the most important factors are wind, water, flooding and loss of power. Anti-flood valves or gates are easy to use and can be installed by two people without any equipment. Outdoor furniture and plants should be anchored or moved indoors. Storage areas should be prepared in advance to store everything needed in the event of a storm. “The last thing you want to do is run to Lowe’s to get something you need, and someone beat you to it,” Lea said.

Proven precautions like closing windows and piling sandbags in front of doors can help keep water at bay and reduce wind damage. Raising elevators to higher floors in the event of flooding is another measure property managers can take. And all important physical and digital files should be moved to a safe place and backed up.

While the threat of future damaging storms is here to stay, the good news is that there are more resources than ever for office building owners looking to protect their properties from the elements. And while cities are spending millions, if not billions, on resilience initiatives, building owners will have to take precautionary measures themselves.