Editor's note: Tim Ham is a senior project superintendent at Hoar Construction’s Florida division, which he helped start 20 years ago. Ham works on a variety of projects, including mixed-use, hospitality and major theme parks.
No jobsite can be considered "smart" if it's not diligently and intelligently preparing for safety and resilience in the event of a major storm or natural disaster. Disaster management plans are a necessary part of nearly every construction project, especially — but not only — in areas prone to hurricanes and other types of frequent and predictable storm patterns. Long before storm season, managers should consider how their jobsites could be affected and plan to not only prepare for, but endure, the worst. From the moment that a tropical storm is identified, managers should immediately implement or update their disaster management plan.
Through proper communication, ample planning and immediate clean-up efforts, construction sites can be protected from a storm or salvaged in the wake of a catastrophe.
Have a communication plan
Communicating with trade partners, property owners and local agencies is the key to implementing a successful disaster management plan for hurricanes. Some trade partners and owners may not be local, and therefore may not have prior experience with hurricanes, so it is the general contractor’s job to make sure everyone understands the potential damage that may occur and communicate everyone’s role clearly.
For example, once a hurricane is named (meaning the storm has maximum sustained winds of at least 74 miles per hour) teams should hold a mandatory meeting to set the parameters of how they are going to prepare the site. Detailed plans should be created for various timeframes before, during and after the storm, starting up to 72 hours before the storm is projected to hit.
All parties should stay up to date on FEMA announcements as the storm approaches. It is wise to determine and communicate one radio channel or news station for everyone to tune into to ensure that all team members are receiving the same, consistent updates. Having a group text message, email chain or other form of streamlined communication can also assist in keeping the team aligned before, during and after a storm. Hoar Construction, for instance, has a dedicated messaging center for employees to communicate through, both during and after storms.
Make preparations, secure site
Every project is different, so it is critical to understand where a site is in the construction process and think of every possible way that it could be damaged. Once a disaster management plan is in place and teams have reviewed potential hazards, the next step is to prepare the jobsite by identifying and properly securing any hazardous objects that could become airborne. This includes tying down any equipment, making sure dumpsters are empty and moving other equipment to safe areas.
Removing materials that can become airborne during high winds is crucial to lowering the risk of damage. For example, if airborne materials damage windows or roofs, this can increase water damage inside of structures, exponentially driving up the cost of repairs. A project that is surrounded by completed structures has even more variables to consider, as the potential for damage is higher than it is at a standalone site.
If the project is in the demolition phase or in the process of being erected, a structural engineer should assess it and devise the proper way to support structures during the storm by putting in additional cables and guides to help structures withstand high winds. Drainage pipes may not be completed yet, which can create areas of heavy flooding. If that is the case, site managers should ensure that extra generators and water pumps are available to alleviate flooding as soon as possible.
Get official clearance
One of the most important steps that may be overlooked in hurricane preparation is to obtain official "first responder" clearance for a particular jobsite. This will ensure that designated workers can get clearance to the site after the storm passes. It is crucial that workers wait until proper clearance is given before they return to a jobsite. In order to get first responder clearance, general contractors should work directly with the property owner and the National Guard. Having a first responder team can help mitigate the damage and lower the ultimate cost of clean-up efforts.
Create a clean-up strategy
A designated superintendent should be responsible for reviewing the site after the storm passes to make sure it’s safe for clean-up efforts. If it is not safe, there should be a clear communication procedure in place to ensure the superintendent knows who is qualified to handle the specific dangers that are present onsite to ultimately resolve the issue. For example, if there is a leaking gas line, the site superintendent should know which specific trade partner is available to help with that effort, before allowing any other partners onto the jobsite.
Water damage is one of the biggest concerns on every general contractor’s mind. Water pumps and generators become the most important part of clean-up if flooding has occurred, which is why they need to be tested and prepared prior to the storm hitting. Getting temporary fixes in place, like tarps for roofs, is key to minimizing damage. Once the temporary fixes are in place, trade partners can continue working on a site according to their original or modified plans.
Planning is truly everything when construction professionals are dealing with unpredictable hurricanes or disasters. With proper planning and preparation, jobsites can be salvaged and get back on schedule in an efficient, cost-effective and safe manner.