Atlantic hurricane season begins on June 1, which means that it's time, once again, for contractors to start thinking about how to keep their construction sites secure in case of a hurricane, tropical storm or even a tropical depression.
Although hurricanes like 2005’s Hurricane Katrina — which left an estimated $125 billion in damage and more than 1,800 people dead — seem the most ominous, Superstorm Sandy, which was downgraded from a hurricane just before it made landfall along the New Jersey and New York coastlines in 2012, demonstrated that a storm doesn’t have to be classified a hurricane to cause extensive damage. Even though it was not a hurricane as determined by the National Hurricane Center when it came onshore, it caused approximately $69 million in damage and killed more than 70 people in the U.S.
Justin Mihalik, former president of the American Institute of Architects-New Jersey and currently chair of the organization’s legislative and government affairs committee, is part of the AIA's Disaster Assistance Program, which in addition to helping with preparedness, assists communities after a natural disaster with volunteer assessment of the integrity of damaged buildings. Mihalik said that resiliency is the name of the game, and the big questions are around mitigating damage.
"It's all about recovery time," Mihalik said. "Time is money, so there's no doubt that contractors should want to be prepared because it's money out of their pockets."
Construction companies need to prepare for the worst when storms pose a threat to their job sites and have a plan for dealing with the ramifications after a storm passes.
1. Write a hurricane preparation plan
The first step in getting ready for a hurricane comes before there's even one on the way. It's important that all construction companies in hurricane-prone areas have a written hurricane preparation plan, whether it's incredibly detailed or just a memo to assign everyone on the project a task to complete in advance of the storm.
2. Monitor the weather
The second step is to monitor the weather on a regular basis, even when there is barely even the threat of a summer shower. Online sites like The Weather Channel and Accuweather will have the latest severe weather alerts posted almost immediately. Weather radios might be a worthwhile investment as well. These devices are configured to receive weather reports and are often equipped with alert capabilities that can be set to sound an audible alert if there is a severe weather event in store for the broadcast area. One of the primary benefits to this type of radio is that many are powered by batteries, solar or even a hand crank to ensure a steady stream of weather information, even during power outages.
3. Work with local building departments
In some areas, and especially when it comes to large projects, it's not unusual for a contractor to have communication with local building officials about their hurricane plans as well, according to Mihalik. Public safety is the stated mission for many building departments, and they often want reassurance that the project site poses no threat to neighboring properties or residents.
4. Secure job site materials
Once it looks like a storm will be passing close enough to a project, it's time for jobsite personnel to perform critical tasks, such as securing materials, trash, tools or other debris that can take flight in heavy winds, including items like dumpsters and portable bathrooms — the latter of which are typically made of lightweight fiberglass.
"Any construction equipment that essentially can become thrown around in a heavy windstorm needs to be tied down, needs to be removed from the site, needs to be protected," Mihalik said.
This requirement is particularly true for cranes. A tragic example of how higher-than-normal winds can cause cranes to fail, leading to significant property damage and loss of life, was the collapse of a tower crane into a Dallas apartment building in June 2019. Crane company Bigge Crane blamed the accident on high winds and is still fighting related OSHA fines.
Items like fence screens and job site signage also must be removed, and any in-progress utility systems must be protected from sand or seawater intrusion if there is the possibility of storm surge. Now is also the time to take any moveable electronics and project documents from the construction trailer and transport them to a safe location offsite. Power to the site must be turned off, if possible, and fuel must be made available to power generators if there is no power post-storm.
5. Plan for water removal
Mihalik added that planning for water removal is also key. He said that many contractors will place pumps in excavations or basements in advance of a storm so that pumping can begin as soon as it is safe to do so. Getting rid of excess water is not only important for project cleanup but also to protect adjacent properties. "An influx of water … could be extremely dangerous as it relates to a neighboring property because that water could soften the ground that is supporting the neighboring structure," he said. "So you don't want water to be standing on site because it could then compromise the structural stability of the … building."
To discharge water safely and responsibly, Mihalik said, it must be emptied out onto the street so that the stormwater system can take care of it. If the system is overwhelmed, it's still important to get the excess water off the site, even if that means hiring a tanker truck to haul it away, he noted.
6. Secure hazardous chemicals
Another important step is to make sure that any hazardous chemicals are moved or secured. "Construction firms and others in the building industry should take the steps before a natural disaster to ensure they have a qualified team in place to handle their hazardous waste management program," Maricha Ellis, formerly of Stericycle Environmental Solutions, said. Ellis referenced the Environmental Protection Agency's list of chemicals included in the agency's Emergency Planning and Community Right-To-Know Act (EPCRA) and said that if any of these chemicals are in danger of being released into the environment, contractors must have a third-party team ready to come in immediately after the storm passes to perform cleanup.
7. Ensure the structure's security
Now that the items on the periphery of the project are secure, it's time to safeguard the structure itself. If the work is a renovation — or if work has progressed on a new building to a point where water can significantly damage the interior — crews should board up any openings and accessible windows and place sandbags around the perimeter.
8. Assess the damage with caution
When the storm has passed and local authorities have given the go ahead, it's time to return to the project site to assess damage and start to clean up. It's important to use caution when navigating every area of the project site, especially those with standing water, as the accompanying sharp or jagged debris could pose a danger.
It's also essential to use the same care when entering a building after a storm because, depending on the extent of the damage, some structural elements could be compromised.