Scott McLaughlin (pictured) knows better than to take a hurricane forecast lightly. As someone who has spent the past quarter century overseeing storage properties across the southeastern United States, McLaughlin has had a front row seat for some of this country’s most devastating natural disasters.
While Katrina, Harvey and Ian might sound like good options when naming a newborn, they conjure up a much different set of emotions for McLaughlin, executive vice president of Tampa-based Sentry Self Storage, which oversees 25 facilities across the southeastern United States.
He has vivid memories of Hurricane Katrina decimating New Orleans back in 2005. A decade later, he watched Hurricane Harvey land in Texas, killing more than 100 people and pounding some of Sentry’s Texas-based properties. Last year, Hurricane Ian pummeled Florida’s western coast, causing more than $100 billion in damage.
“I’ve dealt with some significant damage, flooding issues, building damage…,” said McLaughlin. “Preparedness ahead of time is critical. You kind of learn from your mistakes over the years, so we’ve definitely got a solid checklist in place at the beginning of each season.”
Before putting any formal “to-do” list together, McLaughlin encourages every newly minted storage operator to make a few phone calls.
“First and foremost, the storage industry is very collaborative,” said McLaughlin. “Operators are willing to share information. So, item number one would be to speak to somebody who has experience with it just to get their take. That way you have a concept for going forward.”
Beyond that, have a checklist with definitions that clearly tie hurricane preparedness to specific events.
“In our case, we refer to the zone of uncertainty,” said McLaughlin, whose facilities stretch from South Carolina to Texas. “If your property or your market is within that zone of uncertainty, it kicks off a certain set of steps. If a hurricane warning becomes a hurricane watch, that kicks off a set of steps.”
After checking forecasts and assessing risk, McLaughlin focuses on what he describes as “site functionality.”
“Basically, make sure your dumpster corrals aren’t full of loose debris, anything that could become a projectile,” he said. “You don’t want to have open trailers parked on-site where people have stored debris. You need to make sure that those get cleared out every spring, so you don’t end up with these things flying around your property hurting somebody or damaging the buildings. Having a checklist so that there’s a constant form to refer back to so if you’ve had some staff turnover, everyone’s still walking in the same direction.”
The idea of developing detailed pre- and post-storm checklists sits well with Matthew Rosencrans, the lead hurricane season outlook forecaster at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). That’s been doubly true in 2023, with an Atlantic hurricane season that’s tracking above average for the number of named storms, number of hurricanes and number of major hurricanes. By the time the hurricane season ends on November 30, NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center expects between six and 11 hurricanes to have made landfall in the U.S.
Although predicting the future is often a futile exercise, Rosencrans points to a handful of ominous trends that should get the attention of every storage operator and homeowner within a two-hour drive of the Atlantic Ocean or Gulf of Mexico.
“We do see a slight increase in the amount of rain in the core of the storms, about 2–3% in that,” he said. “We’re also seeing about a 2–4% increase in the maximum wind intensity. We are seeing an increase in coastal flooding from the storm surge associated with these storms — partially from those higher winds and partially from higher sea levels.”
Even more concerning to Rosencrans is the slowing down of the forward motion of many recent storms.
“Once they hit land or once they start to curve northward, they move a little more slowly and that is really what’s causing the heavier rain with these storms because they’re able to drop more rain in a single area,” he said.
Timing Is Everything
While there’s an ongoing debate on how to deal with increases in coastal flooding and wind speeds, there’s no argument about the value of preventive measures. Rosencrans said many of the actions storage operators take in April and May — even if it’s in 2024 and beyond — can be critical during an October or November hurricane.
“Make sure those storm drains are cleared out while it’s quiet,” he said. “Go fill sandbags now. Take an hour to do that today, so you don’t have to fill or buy them when everyone else is trying to buy them. Do those things now while it’s quiet and you might have an extra hour when you’re not under the threat of a major storm over the next couple days. We all know those moments get very tense when you’re at a store and you’re trying to buy the last item and so is your neighbor next to you. Take the time now to prepare and that way stores can refill, and the next people can get what they need.”
Coastal areas inevitably get the lion’s share of attention in the days leading up to a hurricane, but Rosencrans said many people who live and work hundreds of miles from the ocean often have a false sense of security.
“It’s not just the storage facilities in Miami,” he said. “It’s the storage facility that’s outside of Atlanta. I just saw the flooding rings from Hillary [in early September] made it all the way up into Idaho. There were some flash floods off of some burn scars in eastern Oregon. These impacts can extend 1,000 miles inland from these storms. Given that a lot of self storage places are in more-populated areas with more pavement and impermeable surfaces, those inland flooding risks go up with these storms.”
Know Your Surroundings
Rob Allison, co-founder and chief operating officer at Florida-based Red Rover Moving & Storage, has witnessed dozens of major storms over a 25-year period and knows they’re particularly cruel to those who take them lightly. He’s quick to point out that he and his Red Rover colleagues don’t fall into that category.
“We do a systems check to make sure all things are good, from IT systems to phone systems to generators,” said Allison regarding his pre-storm rituals. “If you have a generator, be sure to test it out and make sure you have fuel on hand. If you have any large reservoir of fuel that requires on-site delivery, it’s always best to do those at the start of hurricane season. Don’t wait too long, because trying to schedule fuel delivery gets problematic as you get closer to the storm.”
Allison warns that vacant storage units can pose risks if not properly tended to.
“If you have empty units, make sure the door’s down,” he said. “Either latch them or lock them closed so that they can’t be compromised during any wind event. I also recommend taking pictures or videos of the facility before there’s an event so if there’s damage they can reference back to the facility’s condition prior to the storm. That helps for insurance claims and any potential customer disputes.”
Power Through a Storm
Because some hurricanes can leave entire regions without power for days at a time, Allison said back-up generators are no longer optional items for storage operators. While he understands why some may question the need to invest in a high-end generator for a storm that may never arrive, Allison said there are a variety of options on the market.
“A generator running at a facility that’s 30,000 square feet and has 10,000 square feet of office space and climate-control will probably cost you about $200,000 to purchase it and install it,” he said. “But there are also companies that do lease programs where you lease a generator from them. The way it works is they come out and pre-wire everything. All you have to do is plug it in. It’s almost like being able to plug in an RV. If a facility goes without power for 24 hours, they have a way to monitor it and automatically show up and place a generator on-site to get your facility back online.”
“Old School” Approach
While most hurricane forecasts conjure up images of detached roofs, overturned dumpsters and multi-day power outages, many longtime storage operators are equally concerned with their internal operations. Sentry’s McLaughlin said that once his managers send out notices that facilities will close within 24 hours, most of the focus shifts to preparing the office for battle.
“Documents get bagged, things get put up on cabinets, and computers get disconnected, so any kind of power surge doesn’t fry our equipment,” McLaughlin said. “Power surges can be very problematic, especially with as much low voltage equipment as we run with our camera systems, our DVRs and our gate systems. They tend to be pretty sensitive to those things, so we’ll shut stuff off at the breakers to do everything we can to prevent that unnecessary damage.”
Part of the process also involves making hard copies of walk-through checklists, rent rolls and any other document that would help Sentry’s managers in the event power isn’t restored for several days.
“We need to be able to identify who’s in each unit,” he said. “We have to be able to have rent rolls of who’s current and who’s not so that when people start showing up and need to get into their unit, we’re able to run the facility the way a facility would be run prior to management software.”
He compares it to taking an “old school” approach.
“You’ve got hard copies of lease agreements, everything you need in paper form,” McLaughlin said. “We call that our hurricane crash kit, so if we refer to a property running on their crash kit, that basically means they’re doing everything on paper, whether it’s taking payments and writing hand receipts or writing hand leases. That helps us keep our business going in the days afterwards when things tend to be chaotic.”