Natural disasters have devastated cities across the country in recent years, and this year is expected to be no different, especially for hurricane season, which is already here. Hurricane season in the U.S. officially began on June 1st and will continue until November 30th. Forecasters at the NOAA say that this year’s season could bring more hurricane activity than usual, predicting a 65 percent chance of an above-normal season. Across the country, 40 million homes are at risk of hurricane damage. This less-than-stellar outlook could seriously impact the commercial real estate industry.
New York City topped CoreLogic’s list of the most at-risk metropolitan areas. At the same time, the states with the greatest threat of damage and destruction are southern states with major coastlines that are no stranger to devastating hurricanes: Florida, Texas, and Louisiana. Major storms over the last 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, wreaked havoc on people, cities, and infrastructure. Since then, many cities and real estate owners have upped their game in preparing their properties for the possibility of a natural disaster.
A decade after the 9/11 attacks devastated Lower Manhattan, the revitalized area, home to the country’s fourth-largest business district, sustained significant damage from 2012’s Hurricane Sandy. Office buildings along the waterfront were flooded by thousands of gallons of water from the storm surge, shutting down mechanical systems and crippling the area’s small businesses. In total, the deadly storm caused tens of billions in damage across the region. New York City suffered $19 billion in damages and lost economic activity on its own.
Once again, city leaders pledged to build back, but this time, build for resiliency. Major plans from the city are in the works: Lower Manhattan Coastal Resiliency (LCMR), which aims to protect the area from daily tidal flooding and storms; the Financial District and Seaport Climate Resilience Master Plan, described as a “blueprint” for infrastructure that would prevent flooding as a result of storms and climate change-related events; and the $1.45 billion East Side Coastal Resiliency Project, parts of which have faced pushback from local residents.
In Miami, a metropolitan area with an office market totaling 100 million square feet, protecting the city from the impacts of a hurricane has long been a high priority. The most recent storm to cause significant damage was Hurricane Irma in 2017. Winds alone from Irma caused $19 billion in damages, according to Florida International University researchers. After Hurricane Andrew walloped Miami in 1992, Miami tightened its building codes to some of the strictest in the U.S.
After one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history swept through New Orleans in 2005, the city has come a long way in building back and constructing 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 successfully kept floodwaters at bay. However, other systems, like power and water, failed. While cities have clearly made big strides in resiliency efforts, a report from FEMA that was released earlier this year found that most states in the U.S. have outdated building codes when it comes to protecting against natural disasters, including Hurricane-prone Louisiana.
Holding back the flood
For office owners and developers, preparation should start before the building is even built. One of the country’s largest commercial real estate firms, Hines, is one of the owners that has learned the hard way over the years how to better prepare for the future. In 2008, Hurricane Ike ripped through the Texas cities of Galveston and Houston, causing billions of dollars in damage. Jerry Lea, an executive vice president at the Houston-based firm, recalled how the electrical vault at the base of the firm’s downtown office building was badly damaged during the deluge. “It was just toasted,” Lea said. “It was gone. We had to bring in generators and put them on the sidewalk, and we said ‘we’re never doing this again.’”
Lea works on the company’s projects during the pre-construction and design phase. After Ike (and later Hurricane Harvey), new development projects the firm is working on in Houston–a city that sits just 50 feet above sea level–will have mechanical systems installed in flood-safe areas of the property and are built above the 500-year flood plain. The developer recently opened Texas Tower, a 47-story skyscraper in the heart of downtown Houston that has one million square feet of office space. The high-profile building was designed to achieve several green building certifications. It will be the first building in the city to have an electrical vault above grade, according to Lea. The complex sits atop the building’s parking garage, 11 stories in the air.
Keeping a building from sustaining major damage in the event of a storm means installing hurricane-proof windows that can withstand massive wind loads. That’s a feature Hines is adding to Texas Tower, even at lower levels, due to the potential for wind tunnel-like effects. The threat of wind is so important that Hines hires a company to run tests on a model of the property and its 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.
At luxury condo project Flagler Towers in West Palm Beach, Hines is in the process of designing three 22-story residential towers that sit a block from the Atlantic Ocean. The city’s building code requires hurricane-proof glass to withstand the impact of wind, salt spray, and tide rise, a powerful combination that Lea says has been described as “shooting a 2×4 out of a cannon.” The firm is looking to use limestone as one of the exterior elements, a product the firm has tested extensively to ensure it can withstand sea spray and not deteriorate over time.
Another project Hines is currently developing in Houston’s medical center, Levit Green, is a life sciences facility. Though the building is located in an area not likely to have as much impact from wind, Hines isn’t taking any chances. The building will have laminated glass to ensure the windows will stay intact and tenants’ research and projects will stay safe. “Our tenants are constantly doing research, and it can take years,” he said. “They could be two years into research and lose everything–millions of dollars worth of time.” Levit Green will also be fully equipped with emergency backup generators.
Regardless of whether an office building is built with special hurricane-proof features, there are important steps owners can take now and in the days before an expected storm to best be prepared. Property managers should first provide building tenants with a detailed action plan in the event of an emergency and make sure they have open lines of communication, something Lea said is crucial. “Everything is about quick reactions and getting people back to occupying the building.”
In a hurricane, the biggest factors are wind, water, flooding, and loss of power. Flood gates or flood doors 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 ready in advance to stock anything 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.
Tried-and-true precautions like boarding up windows and stacking sandbags in front of doorways can help keep water at bay and lessen wind damage. Bringing elevators up to higher floors in case of flooding is another step property managers can take. And any important physical and digital files should be moved to a safe place and backed up.
While the threat of future destructive storms is here to stay, the good news is there are more resources than ever for office building owners looking to keep their properties as safe as possible from the elements. And while cities are spending millions and even billions on resiliency initiatives, building owners will have to take precautionary measures into their own hands.