Emergency Mode! Tips on Dealing With Disasters in Condos, Co-Ops and HOAs

Hi again!  The last couple of weeks have been pretty rough at my building–a string of bad luck minor disasters, one after another, have severely tested management’s ability to respond.  But so far they’ve come through with flying colors–and I thought I’d share our experiences and give my thoughts on some of the factors that go into dealing with emergencies effectively and efficiently.

“Disaster” number 1–About two weeks ago, one of our compressor pumps, which pushes water into the cooling tower to operate the building’s air conditioning, broke down.  Because two others were also being repaired at the time, we were down to a single pump providing water for the entire building’s cooling needs.  Of course, the night this happened (a Sunday, when else), the AC in the building went out entirely, on a balmy 90 degree Florida evening.  By the next morning staff had gotten it running again, but only by working creatively to adjust the valves so that enough water was going into the tower to do the work of 4 pumps.  In the meantime, our air conditioning contractor is completely rebuilding the pump (there was a bent shaft, among other issues).

“Disaster” number 2–Within a day or 2, a second emergency struck–the water main that delivers potable water into the building developed a serious crack, leaking tremendous amounts of water underneath the driveway and threatening to rupture entirely.  If that were to happen, the building would lose water completely.  It’s one thing not to have air conditioning–it’s quite another to go without a shower for weeks.  Fixing the water main was therefore a true emergency repair.

I don’t want to go into too much detail about the specifics of these repairs, but I’ll give some background regarding the water main just so that readers can appreciate the scope of the problem.  The water main had cracked once before, and had therefore been repaired just a week earlier.  That repair required tearing up a six foot section of the driveway, cutting through 2 feet of concrete, excavating dirt and repairing a broken joint that connected the water main pipe to the building.  During that process, one of our two garages needed to be shut down for two days, the building was without water entirely for a day, a parking garage across the street was rented at a significant sum–it was a serious inconvenience for residents.  We thought, however, that the problem was corrected.

To our horror, just a few days later the water began again pouring out into the garage, this time with significantly greater force.  We assumed that the contractor had somehow botched the repair–but now it appears that we are dealing with several different construction defects that contributed to the repeated failure of the pipe.  It’s impossible to tell at this point the exact cause of the water main break, but our engineers are investigating.

For the moment, the important issue is not who caused the leak, or how it occurred, it’s HOW to fix it, and fix it properly.  And that’s where a good management team, good board, and good planning all come into play.  Let’s look at the individual elements.

1)  Good Management–The absolute most important factor in any shared ownership community (SOC) in dealing with disasters is having a management team that you can trust, that is competent to deal with the issue and that is either properly informed or knows how to inform themselves.  We’re lucky to have a great manager and a very knowledgeable chief engineer at the property, and both are dedicated enough that they put themselves on 24/7 call to help deal with the problem.  Of course, when it first began, we assumed that the driveway could be dug up and repaired again in a day or so, but the damage has turned out to be far more extensive–now we’re running on over a week of excavation.  You know that big red dog, Clifford?  Well it looks as if Clifford is having a field day on the side of our building.  There’s a giant hole dug into the driveway that actually runs underneath the driveway for several yards.  When the project started, the digging was all done by hand (occasionally one would see dirt being flung out of the hole, just like a dog digging under a fence), but the excavation ended up being extensive enough that a vacuum truck was brought in to suck the dirt out of the hole.  And that vacuum truck has now been here for days, just sucking dirt and emptying it away from the property–I can hear it buzzing downstairs as I write this blog.

So the manager and chief engineer, both appropriately dressed-down for digging, have been putting themselves in the thick of the repair, jumping into giant holes in the ground, peering into dark mining-shaft tunnels and coordinating with the pipe contractor.  Without their dedication, and without the board’s trust in their abilities to coordinate the repair effectively, this emergency would have become a full-on nightmare for the board.  It is absolutely critical, long before disaster strikes, that SOCs ensure that they have the absolute best management team in place that they can find and afford.  If you as an owner have any concerns about your property manager’s ability to direct an emergency situation, now is the time to speak up to the board, BEFORE there is an issue that turns into a true catastrophe.  I feel strongly that our management team has effectively prevented an emergency situation, admittedly unpleasant and stressful, from becoming a building-clearing nightmare scenario for owners.

Now, I certainly understand that there are smaller properties around the country that cannot afford an independent manager, and where the board members run the show.  While this is sometimes necessary, it is simply never ideal.  Directors and officers are rarely trained in SOC management, and are even less likely to be able to effectively deal with emergency engineering issues.  They will be at the whim of the contractors who are advising them, and will be under tremendous pressure from the other owners to fix any problems quickly (and quickly is not always the best policy–sometimes doing repairs deliberately and taking your time is the way to prevent future problems).

2)  A Good Board–The second, very important factor in dealing with emergencies is having a good board of directors, one that is not afraid to make decisions, that is willing to meet on short notice to deal with important issues and that has good communication practices.  When an emergency arises, it will often be up to the board to rapidly consider repair proposals, analyze engineering reports and authorize the expenditure of large sums of money.  To do that properly, it takes dedication, and it takes bravery, because there are always some owners who will balk at the idea of spending any money on a property, even to repair a life-safety issue.  Serious issues may take tens of thousands of dollars to repair, and in most properties that money must be recovered either through insurance or a special assessment of the owners.  This is exactly the time when a board needs to act professionally and not be swayed by neighbors who might be shouting in their ear to do one thing or another.  Instead, board members should remember their duties to the association (maintain the property, maintain the property, maintain the property) and do what’s needed to satisfy residents’ basic needs.

3) Good Contractors–Emergencies like this are why it’s critical to cultivate strong relationships with contractors that you can trust.  Sure, it’s all well and good to save money on a major project by going with the lowest bidder, but picking the lowest bidder is not always the best choice.  Sometimes, the lowest bidder is actually the lowest for a reason, and may be using cheaper, less well-trained labor or cheaper materials.  And while picking the lowest bidder on a small project that is less important to a property is attractive, consider the long term value of working with a contractor who, for a bit more money, you trust to do the really difficult work at the property.  At our building, we attempt to use the same contractors for certain issues (air conditioning, elevators, plumbing, landscaping, etc.) and accept that the cost may not always be, to the dollar, the cheapest option available.  The decision more than makes up for itself in consistency, efficiency (though superior long-term knowledge of the property) and a desire, on the part of the contractor, to deal with emergency repairs quickly and appropriately.  Consider this–who is going to do a better job repairing an issue, and spend more time and effort on the repair–a contractor for whom the repair is a one-shot deal, or the contractor who expects to get future work out of the property?  Long term contractors will almost always be the best choice in dealing with emergency repairs, and it pays to have contractors that you trust available at a moment’s notice.

So because we have a great management team, a dedicated board and trustworthy contractors at a moment’s call, an emergency that might have been catastrophic has instead been livable, if annoying, for our residents.  Despite the pipe repairs, a smart bypass with a fire hose has ensured that we have plenty of water (although not really hot water, as there’s not quite enough pressure to run the boilers at a super-hot temperature), and the A/C hasn’t gone down since that first Sunday evening.  A life-safety problem that could have been a total nightmare (a totally dry building for weeks) has instead been just another bump in the complex pathway of SOC maintenance and management.

Until next time, good luck with your own properties, and if disaster strikes, don’t panic!  Just make good choices and trust in your team.

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