An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, as many Gulf Coast brokerages learned from last year’s storms, and disaster preparedness is taking the spotlight now that hurricane season has begun.
“This time, we’re not going to have to walk up and down 10 flights of steps in the dark carrying computer servers on our backs,” said Rich Stone, director of commercial sales and leasing for New Orleans-based NAI/Latter & Blum. The brokerage has offices all over the Gulf Coast, many of which were battered by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“As a result of everything we went through, we have developed a formal emergency plan to ensure that if we are faced with something like this again, our clients, agents and staff will be much better prepared,” said Stone. The plan was developed well in advance of the June 1 start of hurricane season, he said.
Latter & Blum was founded in 1916 and claims to be the largest broker in Louisiana. Last year, after Katrina hit, the company made a heroic recovery, rebuilding its Baton Rouge server from scratch and making payroll despite the fact that its New Orleans headquarters were under several feet of water.
“We have, together with our information technology people, purchased sophisticated replication software that replicates our most critical data,” Stone said. “Customer lists, correspondence, brokers’ Outlook addresses — the stuff we use on a regular basis is replicated in Baton Rouge and New Orleans,” the director said.
“If we had to evacuate at any time, our data will be available quickly and we will have minimal downtime as far as our continuing operations,” Stone said.
“Also, last time, communications were somewhat of a problem. Our cell phones were out of commission for several weeks to all intents and purposes,” Stone said. In response, the brokerage has issued Nextel phones — “their service worked fine in the storm,” Stone said — to its senior staff.
“We have a consolidated emergency Web page that has been prepared in advance for all of our divisions and an extranet for all our agents to communicate with, so we can immediately put up information for our staff, agents and customers. The Internet is something a lot of people had access to when they evacuated, so we’re ready to fire that up quickly in case of emergency,” Stone said.
“We also have generator backups for our mail server and our Web pages, as will our customers. In the worst case scenario we’ll still have access to our e-mail and emergency Web page, as will our customers,” Stone said.
Business-wise, the firm is doing well, Stone said.
“Our company has a sizable residential component and while those areas that were hardest hit have been slow to come back, the areas that were relatively unscathed have been doing quite well. As a company, we are ahead of where we were last year prior to Katrina,” Stone said.
After living through Hurricane Dennis last year and Hurricane Ivan the year before, Bob Hudgens of Century 21 Coastal Realty Services in Ft. Walton Beach in the Florida Panhandle has learned many lessons, he said.
“One of the biggest things is getting a written plan. Our firm does both residential buying and selling and property management of over 600 units,” Hudgens said.
“We have to be there immediately after the storm,” so one of the company’s biggest points is preparing staff for the fact that they have to be there right away to start assessing damage, said Hudgens, who is also secretary of the Florida Association of Realtors.
“We’ve ordered a 45,000-watt generator so we can keep the office running with computers, lights and air conditioning,” Hudgens said. “We used those little portable generators in the past, and they are not enough to keep everything going.”
Also, Hudgens said, the best approach is to run the generator off natural propane gas. Otherwise, it’s necessary to use automobile gas, and “you have to fill up every day and spend half your time waiting in line to get gas.”
The Florida Association of Realtors has produced a disaster plan, Hudgens said, with step-by-step instructions for brokers – “retrieve the yard signs so they don’t fly all over the place, shut off gasoline or water, things people might not be thinking of. Protect your computer records, get the computer off the floor and cover with plastic in case the roof leaks,” Hudgens said.
His firm is not doing as well this year as it was before the hurricane, Hudgens said, but he doesn’t attribute this to the storm. Homeowners’ insurance costs have jumped, as have property taxes, and this is inhibiting buyers, according to Hudgens.
Eight of Keller Williams’ market centers in the Gulf Coast were either destroyed or damaged by Hurricane Katrina, and for Jeff Doussan, majority owner of Keller Williams’ New Orleans office, “preparedness” has a whole different definition.
“We (New Orleans) still have a lot of the same issues. The levies are fixed, but the pumps are not fixed,” Doussan said.
In terms of individual preparation, Doussan said he has changed to a cell phone with a radio phone feature. Doussan has backed up everything on his computer, something his office does as a matter of course. But that’s not his main concern.
“I know the Corps of Engineers has been working feverishly to get things to a level that can protect us, but the pumps are not fixed,” he said.
“We’re praying for no storms. If there is a storm, we are in trouble,” Doussan said.