Securing Your Investment in the Eye of the Storm: Hurricane Risk Assessments

By Gary Tasman

When NOAA predicted a “near normal” Atlantic hurricane season for 2023, many Southwest Floridians breathed a cautious sigh of relief. However, long-time Florida residents know not to put much stock into these predictions, as a catastrophic storm can occur even in the mildest of years. Hurricane Andrew, after all, devastated South Florida in a “below normal” season. If June’s active tropics are any indication of the coming months, we could be in for another nerve-wracking summer and fall in Southwest Florida.

When most of us discuss hurricane preparation, we initially think of protecting our families and our homes, including our collective annual tradition of stocking up on bottled water and hand sanitizer. For commercial property owners, emergency planning is also an essential duty, to protect their assets and ensure the safety of tenants and employees. Too often, however, property owners rely on the same pre-fabricated hurricane checklists we use at home, and overlook one of the most important parts of the emergency planning process: risk assessment.

What is a Risk Assessment?

Conducting a risk assessment helps property owners identify possible hazards, vulnerabilities or areas of concern that may make a site susceptible to damage. Although we will discuss hurricane-related risk primarily in this article, there are numerous other potential risks to consider in a truly comprehensive assessment. Data breaches, supply chain disruption, financial volatility, occupational safety, crime and civil unrest can all make a business or property vulnerable.

For commercial property owners in areas susceptible to natural disasters like hurricanes, earthquakes, fires, or floods, determining the risk related to these hazards should be completed regularly, and the results used to fortify a physical structure and the operations within it. While none of us can change the track of a hurricane, we can certainly mitigate the impact of that storm once it arrives.

Risk assessments are important for protecting physical property, ensuring the safety of occupants, and ease potential financial losses. A risk assessment can also help owners better comply with required safety standards, reduce your legal liability, and potentially even reduce your insurance rates.

How do I Conduct a Hurricane Risk Assessment?

  • Review your history. While none of us want to dwell on Hurricane Ian, looking back on the impact of past storms is an excellent start to conducting a risk assessment.  With your tenants, property managers, and facilities staff, review how your property held up during recent storms. Each of the pain points that you or your tenants experienced is a potential area of concern for a future tropical event.
  • Conduct a threat assessment. Storm surge, high winds, and flying debris are some of the most obvious hazards during a hurricane. However, these hazards can produce other risks, such as downed power lines or inoperable communication systems. These threats not only threaten the safety of tenants, employees, and visitors, they can also disrupt the vital operations conducted within your facility.
  • Search for structural vulnerabilities. Evaluating your physical property’s structural integrity will help you reveal any potential weaknesses. Depending on the size of your facility, when it was built, or where it’s located, you may want to employ professionals such as structural engineers, building inspectors, construction contractors or architects with experience in building assessments. These consultants can help conduct a detailed evaluation of the property’s foundation, walls, roofs, windows, and other structural components.
  • Assess surrounding properties. In addition to evaluating the structure itself, consider the area surrounding it. Carports, fences, outdoor furniture, trees, and even signage can become hazards during high winds. Neighboring buildings or nearby construction sites may also have equipment or structural features that could pose a threat during a storm.
  • Audit the mechanical systems. HVAC, plumbing, electrical, and other mechanical systems experience daily wear and tear that may not be obvious or of concern until a hurricane or other emergency. While regular inspections should already be part of your protocol, a risk assessment should review whether these mechanical elements are properly secured and protected from the elements. You may want to consult with mechanical engineers, HVAC specialists, plumbers or other technicians to provide insights into potential vulnerabilities.
  • Test and evaluate emergency systems. You’re likely already regularly testing your fire alarms and fire suppression systems, emergency lighting, and backup generators. However, few of us take the time to evaluate whether these systems are still appropriate for our needs. Although they may still be compliant with local safety codes and regulations, relying on outdated systems may hinder your emergency response or ability to return to business quickly.
  • Understand your tenants. Some businesses and organizations are considered to be essential services during a hurricane and will remain on site. Media organizations, for example, will typically require their teams to “ride out” the storm while producing radio programming, newscasts, or newspapers to keep the public informed. Other businesses may need to return to the facility quickly after a storm to assist in recovery efforts. As you assess risk for your facility, it’s important to understand your tenants’ needs and their emergency plans.
  • Review your insurance coverage. Once you’re familiar with the potential risks to your property, consult with your insurance provider to ensure your policy provides adequate coverage with no potential gaps or redundancies. Identifying your unique vulnerabilities allows your insurer to offer more tailored coverage options that align with your risk profile and potentially reduce your financial losses after a hurricane.
  • Prioritize risks and mitigation activities. Once you’ve documented the potential risks to your property, taking action is the next vital step. Rank each risk based on its likelihood and potential impact, then focus on producing mitigation strategies for each vulnerability. Prioritize those that represent the most significant threats to your property, its tenants, and your business operations.

The Role of a Property Management Team

Conducting a hurricane risk assessment is a valuable tool—one that is integral to the emergency planning process. Unfortunately, it can also be a time-consuming activity for busy commercial property owners, especially those who have invested in multiple properties or own large facilities with numerous functions.  Because of the time and talent involved, owners may be tempted to skip the risk assessment process altogether and rely on instinct and past experience to prepare for hurricanes and other emergencies.

You can remove the burden of personally conducting a risk assessment by utilizing a comprehensive property management team, like the professionals at Cushman & Wakefield | Commercial Property Southwest Florida (CPSWFL). Our full-service property management experts can provide detailed inspections using a point-based audit program to ensure compliance with our high property standards. In addition to delivering post-storm repairs and services, the CPSWFL facility services team regularly conducts site audits and performs preventative maintenance that can minimize the high cost of emergency repairs and preventable equipment replacement.

Hurricanes, unfortunately, are an unavoidable reality in coastal Florida. Proper risk assessment and management can help us protect our investments and mitigate the inevitable hazards of doing business in the eye of the storm. To learn more about how Cushman & Wakefield |Commercial Property Southwest Florida can assist you with your storm preparation needs, contact us at  239-489-3600 or fill out the form .

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