How Facilities Can Cope with the Unthinkable

Having well-documented information about the pre-disaster condition of your facility helps you pinpoint the spots that are at greatest risk.

Years after Hurricane Katrina ripped through the Gulf Coast, the state of Louisiana and the surrounding areas continue to cope with its powerful aftermath. The storm is estimated to have caused more than $81 billion in damage, making it the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history. The state’s schools were among the buildings and infrastructure severely affected by the storm. A 2006 survey of damaged public school facilities in the region confirmed all 124 New Orleans public schools' buildings were damaged by the storm. New Orleans Public Schools officials estimate it will take three to five years and approximately $800 million to repair the damage caused by the hurricane.

In addition to hurricanes and other natural disasters, such as flooding and earthquakes, less severe emergencies can affect facilities severely. The cost of emergency or unplanned repairs to facilities is typically higher than planned maintenance or capital renewal projects because of their urgent nature. Lack of planning can slow down an organization's ability to react post-disaster. For example, in a building where space becomes unusable, the organization will need to make decisions quickly about what other space can most readily and effectively be repurposed and how long the interim space will be needed while repair work is completed.

These unplanned costs also can affect an organization's ability to fund other planned initiatives. Most do not have a holistic picture of their facility portfolio, making it difficult for them to project the impact of this type of emergency spending on future capital plans to weigh various alternatives.

Building on a Foundation of Knowledge
In the wake of a major disaster, damage assessment can be a particular challenge for organizations with dozens or even hundreds of affected properties. Those with well-documented information about pre-disaster facility condition are much more readily able to pinpoint those facilities that are at greatest risk of damage and determine how to prioritize the assessment process.

Because of the need to perform post-disaster assessments quickly, the availability of trained assessment professionals can be limited. In many cases, organizations can deploy field personnel already familiar with specific facilities for quick triage evaluations to determine the systems or structures that require immediate attention, then begin to estimate the costs associated with repair. Armed with a plan for data collection, even employees less versed in building engineering or maintenance can collect basic information.

Although using less-skilled assessors can improve the response time, it will decrease the accuracy and completeness of the assessment data. In some cases, damage to structural integrity or specific building systems may not be obvious.

Following up on the initial triage analysis with professional assessments of specific facilities or systems can enable organizations to respond quickly and cost effectively to initial assessment needs while developing accurate estimates of repair costs. An organization's pre-existing assessment data can be used to make initial triage assessments much more efficient. For example, resistance capabilities extracted from the data can be used to forecast possible damage associated with a disaster before anyone returns to a facility. This previously collected data can be used as a metric to assess the location of areas of greater damage and target the triage assessments to those locations. The data also may point out locations whose pre-existing conditions would suggest the facilities should not be repaired even if damaged. Triage assessments on these facilities can be avoided.

Accessing Information in Real Time, Any Time
Whether a hurricane or flood causes damage that makes a facility uninhabitable for a prolonged period of time or a significant equipment failure or unexpected power outages strikes for a relatively brief time, complete and current information about facility assets and functional uses are the foundation for making optimal decisions about how to redeploy resources most effectively. Of course, information about facility conditions and systems is only valuable if access to the data is not affected by the disaster.

In the past, a comprehensive and well-organized plan room was considered a best-in-class approach to supporting the operations team in its disaster response. However, if such a plan room is in the path of the disaster and suffers damage, the organization's ability to respond effectively can be significantly impaired, and the loss of data can be crippling. Today, best practices dictate that this information be stored electronically in multiple locations to minimize the impact of a single event. An organization's ability to develop a timely recovery plan, with associated costs, is significantly enhanced when this information is contained in a centralized system.

Quick remediation decisions also can help companies stay ahead of the rush for building materials and labor resources, which can become scarce and expensive after a disaster. For example, in the aftermath of the Hurricane Rita, the supply of fuel gas, raw materials, and transportation logistics around the Gulf of Mexico--already significantly impacted as a consequence of Hurricane Katrina--was expected to present a continuing challenge to industry throughout the region. The longer an organization takes to determine the scope of necessary projects and to schedule them, the more likely it will face higher costs for labor and materials, as well as a longer timeline for project completion.

In addition, organizations with detailed facility data can more readily make the case for their repair estimates and negotiate to maximize the values estimated for each item. Effectively managing this process will help the organization minimize the impact of emergency or unplanned repairs on its ability to fund other planned initiatives.

Take That First Step
Even the best planning measures may not prevent damage to facilities. However, up-to-date facility information and effective systems can minimize the impact on the organization's operations. For most organizations, having accurate information along with a centralized system in place can increase response time and truly affect the days, weeks, and even months following a disaster. From minimizing the interruption of business to construction dollars saved, having a handle on the asset portfolio is the first major step in being prepared to respond.

About the Author

Ray Dufresne is Vice President of VFA, Inc. (, which has its U.S. headquarters in Boston, Mass. VFA provides end-to-end solutions for facilities capital planning and asset management. Dufresne helps government, education, and corporate clients analyze their facility portfolios, develop benchmarks, create cost models, and define optimal processes for capital planning. He can be reached at [email protected]

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