Panelists at the Council of MLSs annual conference on Monday discussed how to quickly meet agents’ needs when tragedy strikes.

With regards to natural disasters, 2020 has been a fertile year, with the pandemic, hurricanes and wildfires monopolizing the headlines.

Multiple listing services, guardians of the real estate listing data that the industry runs on, should have a disaster preparedness plan and put that plan to the test, according to panelists at the Council of MLSs’ annual conference, who spoke in a session on Monday called, “Jumanji: Supporting Members in Challenging Times.”

“One of the mantras that we live by here is that having a disaster recovery plan, that’s not a thing,” said Kurt von Wasmuth, CEO of Regional MLS (RMLS) in Portland, Oregon. “If you just have a plan that sits on a shelf, that’s not a plan.”

“You have to have a plan that you’re … testing constantly,” he added. “When I say testing I mean actually have fun with it. Like pretend like an entire department has no internet connectivity or pretend like an entire office has no power, or actually cut the power to an office and see what happens. Like actually test.”

Rene Galvan, executive vice president of the Houston Association of Realtors, said disaster planning was a matter of business continuity — both for the MLS and the members depending on the MLS for their own businesses. After Hurricane Harvey, what people really wanted to know was whether a home had flooded during the hurricane, Galvan said. So HAR’s MLS was able to quickly activate a data field saying whether a home had flooded in Harvey, yes or no.

“We were able to bring that to the table very quickly and kind of ease the operational needs of our members,” Galvan said.

During the coronavirus pandemic, HAR has scaled up its cloud-based telephone systems to have a total work-from-home environment and has also partnered with about a dozen title companies so that agent members — spread out over 12 Texas counties — can pick up lockboxes from local title company offices instead of coming to HAR’s central office to pick them up, according to Galvan.

Peggy Mead, executive director of the Sierra North Valley Association of Realtors based in Chico, California, spoke of experiencing “baptism by fire” when the nearby town of Paradise, California, was destroyed by wildfire in 2018.

“We were all working full time from the office, but 14,000 homes were lost, and so we had Realtors and community members who are going through just crazy times and with PTSD and just nuts,” Mead said.

She collaborated with neighboring Realtor associations, the state Realtor association, the MLSs in the area and eventually with organizations nationwide to gather gift cards and checks for the victims and then give them out through the other associations. The crisis brought to light how the association had ensured that everything they needed was in the cloud and everyone could work from a laptop. “But we had no idea how to help members who had evacuated through fire, who had nothing,” Mead said.

“We ended up giving out gift cards to people in large amounts. Some people sent gift cards for like Home Depot, but what we really, really needed was Target, Walmart and Mastercards or Visas because people needed toothbrushes and just the basics. I mean everybody had one pair of shoes and it was the pair of shoes they had on. That was it.

“So we learned very quickly. Getting everybody the basics is the first thing to do. After that they branched out, so people were sometimes 60 minutes away or longer, staying with relatives. At that point we moved to gas cards and then people needed food cards, and then some people just needed to get out of their kids’ house for a night and so we had some restaurant cards. You just really learn how to adapt on the fly to people’s needs when they have absolutely nothing.”

She warned conference attendees that fire victims or victims of any sort of tragedy have a story to tell and it’s part of the duty of those helping to listen to that story because that’s how the victims process it.

“[But] it’s absolutely grueling on the people who are trying to be the helpers. So, please, take care of yourself. You can’t help anybody unless you’re taking care of yourself and you will get secondary PTSD from listening to the stories,” Mead said.

She listed off some of the crises that her area has dealt with in recent years — various wildfires, a potential breach of the nearby Oroville dam that would have flooded a huge area south of Chico, and now the pandemic — but stressed that they were also opportunities to form connections to other organizations.

“Things keep happening that we’re not anticipating, so it is honestly ever-evolving, but once you build a bridge with another group of people, that bridge remains firm,” Mead said.

“So now, not only do we work together to help our members, but we do safety classes as a group or we rally together when there’s political issues now. It’s really an unforeseen benefit to what happened. We now have a really strong relationship with all our local associations.”

Galvan pointed out that associations and MLSs can do little things to help their members during the pandemic, such as offering classes during times that take into account how schedules have changed.

“We’re gonna have for the first time next week a class from 6pm to 9pm knowing that so many people are not only mommy and daddy and chef. Now they’re teacher and tutor and trying to do all these things from home. They don’t have time to go to a class during the day,” he said.

“We put this class out there just a week ago, we already had 100 people sign up for an evening course. For our staff they’re in the same situation, they need that morning off, so they’re just sliding their workday. Working virtually, they were totally fine with it. You got to be creative with ‘How can we help the members stay in business? How can we help them in their time of need?’ It’s not costing us any more money to do it that way. It looks like it’s going to be a win-win.”

Email Andrea V. Brambila.

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