As the frequency and severity of extreme weather events, such as hurricanes, floods and wildfires continue to rise, it’s more critical than ever that commercial real estate (CRE) owners and operators prepare by developing proactive, resilient climate-related emergency strategies.
While addressing climate change requires partnerships and coordinated action, front-end planning for severe weather and other climate-related emergencies can also benefit from outside experience and perspective, putting owners in a better position to reduce damage, bounce back quickly, protect their teams and tenants and potentially save lives when things go from bad to worse.
Conduct a site-specific risk assessment
Knowing how to respond in a climate emergency requires first understanding a property’s unique characteristics and vulnerabilities—more specifically, the property type and location. After all, generic plans won’t anticipate all the potential scenarios for both a 50-story office building with controlled access and a shopping mall that is designed to welcome in the general public. With different uses being present throughout properties, knowing how to manage each area is essential for creating a thorough emergency response plan.
Among the questions to consider: Is the property primarily an office, retail, industrial or medical facility? What secondary uses does the property have that may affect emergency response? What are the known direct geographical climate risks (hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, excessive heat or cold) and indirect impacts from ancillary locations (smoke, droughts, floods)?
Identifying the specific vulnerabilities of a property and its location allows owners to tailor an appropriate plan for when disaster strikes. This may involve incorporating measures such as flood barriers for properties located in flood-prone areas or wildfire prevention strategies for those in fire-prone regions, leveraging historical weather data and local climate projections to formulate an effective plan.
Develop a climate emergency response plan
After assessing the risks, property owners must develop a comprehensive plan that outlines the necessary steps before, during and after climate-related emergencies. The plan must encompass various scenarios, including evacuation procedures, communication protocols and resource allocation. Collaborating with local emergency services and authorities can help create a more efficient response plan and facilitate access to real-time weather updates, early warning systems and evacuation routes in the event of an emergency. Regular drills and training sessions ensure that all building personnel are well prepared to handle emergencies effectively.
Create a front-end checklist
Now that you’re ready to put your plan into action, here are three things you can do to ensure building tenants, staff and other on-site personnel are on the same page:
1. Ensure tenants are trained and the plan is accessible.
The value of any emergency response plan lies in its efficiency during a crisis, requiring that everyone is well versed in the plan’s specifics and knows what to do in various scenarios. Regular training and drills are indispensable to test the plans’ efficacy, help employees understand their roles during emergencies and ensure a coordinated response. Digital solutions, such as mobile apps or web-based platforms, can provide instant access during a crisis. Keep a condensed version of the plan for quick reference with physical binders or printed copies strategically placed in key locations as a backup in case of power failures or when digital access is not feasible.
2. Make sure tenants and staff have everything they need.
It’s impossible to anticipate the severity and length of a climate-related emergency, so ensure the property is stocked with essentials and consider what those on site might need during a crisis. Is there plywood or storm shutters at the property? Is there enough food and water for employees in case the team decides to stay—or if deteriorating weather conditions strand tenants?
3. Confirm that facilities are up-to-date.
Sometimes the most damage comes from mundane oversights. Assess the structural integrity of buildings, drainage systems and utility installations. Routine maintenance can pay dividends, such as ensuring trees are trimmed throughout the summer to prevent clogged roof drains that contribute to building collapse. Elevated foundations or flood barriers can help offset risk in flood-prone areas. While not specifically part of emergency preparedness, routine property management tasks are essential to keeping the building in top shape for any future emergency.
Invest in sustainable practices and infrastructure
To truly climate-proof commercial properties, owners and operators must be willing to invest in climate-resilient infrastructure. Prioritize sustainability measures that reduce a properties’ impact on the environment and mitigate climate risk, including upgrading existing buildings to meet higher construction standards, utilizing climate-resistant materials and integrating innovative technology to enhance resilience.
Green roofs and rainwater harvesting systems, for example, can help mitigate risk by managing excessive rainfall and reducing stormwater runoff. Nature-based solutions, like permeable pavements and green spaces, can absorb excess water. Energy-efficient technologies, such as LED lighting, smart HVAC systems and solar panels not only reduce carbon emissions, but also lower operational costs over time. Renewable energy sources, such as wind or geothermal, offer dual benefits—mitigating climate change and providing a reliable energy supply during emergencies when conventional power systems might be compromised.
Adopting water-saving fixtures and landscaping practices can significantly decrease water consumption, particularly in regions vulnerable to droughts, benefiting the environment and the bottom line. Additionally, promoting waste reduction and recycling initiatives within commercial properties contributes to a greener, more sustainable future.
Prepare now for a climate-resilient future
Climate change poses unprecedented challenges to owners and operators of commercial real estate properties. But there are ample opportunities to prepare now for a more climate-resilient future. Taking proactive steps with comprehensive planning and preparedness is not only essential for protecting assets and ensuring business continuity but also safeguards the well-being of communities during times of crisis.