When Disaster Strikes: Emergency Planning for Community Associations

Start Planning for a Disaster Now

Consider this scenario: You are a board member for an HOA that represents over 300 residents in a condominium complex of 20 buildings.  In the early hours of a Thursday morning, you are awakened by a loud knocking at your door.  You open it to find a frantic resident telling you that a building is aflame and the fire department has evacuated 20 people.  You get dressed and go outside to see four units are actively burning and others significantly damaged.  What are you going to do?  As a board member, do you have a responisibility to take action?Do you know the plan?

Disasters, natural or man-made, occur with alarming regularity. Disasters can occur without warning at any time of the day or night.  There are many ways a disaster can detrimentally affect condominiums, planned unit developments, townhouses, single-family homes, or any other type of community development.  Just like the above scenario, many residents could be displaced, buildings and facilities might need repairs or complete demolition, and reserve funds could be entirely depleted.  

Natural DisasterManmade Disaster
EarthquakeChemical Spill
FloodMass casualty incident (terrorism)
Storms (tornado, hurricane, etc.)Building failure or collapse

Governmental and public safety agencies have comprehensive plans for responding to and mitigating large-scale disasters or emergency events.  Businesses have formal plans for responding to disasters, particularly when their employees, business continuity and profitability could be compromised. Most HOAs, however, do not have any formal plans or specialized training to aid in responding to a disaster that impacts their property, property owners and/or residents.  In fact, there are no mandates for HOAs to develop disaster response plans at all.

So then, why should an HOA consider developing a disaster response plan? A community association is a group of residents, neighbors, and most importantly people, and providing a plan for your community to better survive a disaster should be a natural extension of board of director governance. 

Pre-plan Disaster Response Roles and Responsibilities

The most effective way to respond, at any level, to a disaster or emergency is to pre-plan the response, roles and responsibilities.  Just as it’s important to have an earthquake kit ready for when an earthquake strikes, you should have a formalized plan for response to disasters at a community association leadership level. Some HOAs have rules and procedures that regulate disaster-related board responsibilities, usually regarding the expenditure of HOA money. And the Civil Code regulates emergency special assessments and borrowing from reserve funds. The fiduciary, financial and approval processes outlined in the HOA governing documents is critical information to be aware of.  In the aftermath of a major disaster there will normally be a need to authorize emergency expenditure of funds, both immediately and in the long-term.  The process outlined in governing documents should not be subverted just because some type of disaster has occurred. It is prudent to be prepared, even for a minimal response.

These unpredictable events present immediate and long-term considerations for an HOA board and its association manager, and the best way to handle them is with a plan. Without proper planning, simple events can become very overwhelming and burdensome for the board of directors and the affected HOA members.  Research, planning and effective response are all absolutely necessary in order for effective disaster response and recovery to occur.  A current Disaster and Emergency Response Plan is a necessity for any community association.  This is particularly true when HOA members have an expectation that the board will respond proactively in the aftermath of a disaster or emergency event. 

Questions Board Members Should Have Answered

Developing an emergency plan begins with knowing exactly what is expected of each member of the association. Ask the board of directors if they know… 

  • How the membership of the HOA expects them to respond during, and after, a disaster has occurred?
  • What their roles are, as board members, when a disaster strikes in your community?  What role does the community association manager assume?
  • Will the manager be available?  
  • What resources are available to help with the response and recovery from the disaster?  
  • How do standing rules and processes impact the response and recovery from a disaster?

If a board of directors can’t answer these questions, then the entire homeowners association is unprepared and at risk if a disaster strikes.  And these are just a few of the questions that will be asked after a disaster occurs.  As a board member, you will be expected to have the answers.

Management Company’s Role

Since many HOA board members are volunteer owners or residents, most have little to no experience in managing disaster responses or large-scale emergencies.  Floods, earthquakes, fires, explosions, storms, acts of terror, and other disasters are very complex situations that require a coordinated and planned response to achieve optimal relief and recovery.  When hiring a management company for your community association, your board of directors should ask about disaster planning. Do on-site managers have training and experience in handling disasters or emergencies?  Is disaster management one of the functions that they have been hired to perform?  If so, will they be available to help you if there is a regional disaster event? By defining the management company’s role in an emergency situation, the board members of an HOA can better see their own role in dealing with a disaster.  

Creating a Disaster Plan for Your HOA

The plan does not have to be restrictively complex or broad, but it must contain enough information so that current board members can quickly digest and understand their roles and responsibilities in disasters that impact the association. When developing an emergency plan, a board of directors should consider the two main functions of a plan: creating an effective response to the disaster while it is happening and restoring the affected area to pre-disaster conditions.

Effective Repsonse and Restoration

Effective response mainly comprises providing assistance to affected members as quickly as possible. This may include emergency short-term sheltering, providing food and other needed supplies, and attending to other immediate needs as the event is occurring and in the hours immediately following the event.  How long this initial support would continue is a policy decision on the part of the HOA board of directors and could vary, depending on the type of incident.

To illustrate this concept, let’s consider the building fire scenario above. There are 20 residents who have been suddenly and unexpectedly removed from their homes. They probably didn’t have time to gather adequate clothing, food and other personal items when the fire department ordered them to evacuate.  Will you allow them to stand outside in the cold of the night without adequate clothing, access to food, water or sanitary facilities? Of course not!  Does your HOA currently have the ability to provide assistance if this were to occur in your complex tonight?  If the HOA has not considered or planned for disasters, then the answer is most likely no.

Restoration of the affected areas comprises a reestablishment of a state of normalcy as quickly and smoothly as possible.  In the fire scenario, there are obviously long-term considerations.  At least one building that the HOA is responsible for has been damaged significantly.  

In order for an emergency plan to successfully perform its two main functions, the board of directors needs to have a thorough understanding of their insurance coverage, property status, and available funding.  

How involved will the insurance company be in the immediate aftermath of the disaster?
Are any of the units in that building currently inhabitable?  
Can residents access their properties to gather personal items and valuables? 
Is there a need for the building to be inspected by experts before allowing owners back into their properties? 
Is there any potential liability to the HOA for failure to inspect before allowing owners back into their units?
Who will you want to engage to conduct property inspections for safety and habitability?  
How are these people going to be paid?  
Could there be a need for expenditures of association funds in excess of the manager’s discretionary limits?

Answering the Six Basic Questions

Board members must also understand that there will be expectations placed on them in these circumstances which would require them to be available and actively participating in the aftermath of any disaster affecting their community association. Once the expectations and process questions are answered, then the board must develop a formal plan, which outlines the six basic questions:  why, who, what, when, where, and how. 

Why is the plan being developed?  This is usually a fairly simple statement, which typically includes high-level general language relative to the formation of the plan and what the primary objectives and outcomes will be.  

Who is the plan for? This question outlines responsibilities for specific functions and for whom the plan is being developed to assist.  

What is the plan? This question is self-explanatory: the development of a comprehensive disaster/emergency response plan that best fills the needs of the entire community.  

When will the plan be activated? This outlines the circumstances that would trigger the activation of the plan.  

Where will temporary sheltering be established? If homeowners and residents are displaced as a cause of the event, a temporary shelter may be in order to provide relief. The location of emergency supplies (water, flashlights, etc.) should also be discussed.   

How will board members communicate?  If board members cannot meet in a determined physical location, having a system in place for communication is necessary. 

In reality the answers to these questions will inevitably vary for each individual community as well as the different types of disasters.  Just remember that the questions for the development process should never be limited to those listed above, but instead serve as a good starting point in the questions and answers process.

Coordinate with Experienced Personnel

Development of a comprehensive formal disaster response plan should be coordinated with someone who has experience developing disaster plans and managing emergency or disaster events.  There may be community resources available to help in this regard.  Some communities have personnel within their emergency services departments who are available to provide guidance & training.  There are also community based emergency preparedness courses that individuals may attend.  These courses, however, tend to focus on individual or family preparedness, not disaster response and recovery.  There are private companies and consultants available to assist in developing and formalizing disaster and emergency response plans.  Typically, the fees charged are well worth the expenditure and outcomes, especially when there is a need to utilize the plan for an event and the response is well coordinated as a result.

Emergency and certain police actions should also be considered when developing a disaster response plan as they could restrict residents’ use of community association properties or facilities for a period of time.  Examples of this would be a police manhunt for violent and dangerous suspects running at-large in a particular area, or a chemical spill on or near the HOA’s property. 

Finalize and Adopt the Plan 

Once the plan has been drafted and “finalized” the board of directors should review and formally adopt the plan. Once the plan is adopted, implement formal training in the execution of the plan at the board level. Fee based companies and consultants are typically very good at developing and administering realistic and effective disaster training and exercises.   Next, the board needs to communicate the disaster plan to the HOA members so that they know what to expect from the board in response to any disaster within the community.

It is a good practice to periodically review a disaster plan to ensure that it is current and reflects the immediate needs of those it was written to assist, in our case directors, managers and homeowners/residents in the community association.  A great time to do this is shortly after annual board elections. This gives newly elected board members the opportunity to review the plan and understand their individual roles when the plan is activated. This is also an opportune time to conduct periodic training and group exercises.

Community associations are as susceptible to experiencing disasters as much as any other individual or community. Absent a formalized plan, the response will be disjointed and haphazard, at best.  Development of a comprehensive disaster response plan, tailored for the HOA’s specific needs will simplify the process for all involved, minimize the impact of the disaster event, and best serve the entire community.

Adapted from an article by Thomas Connelly, President of Connelly Consulting(link is external), a public safety consulting company located in Santa Clara, CA.  Connelly is also a retired Captain and Operations Division Commander from the Los Altos (CA) Police Department. He was a partof the Santa Clara County Emergency Managers(link is external) group, and is currently a member of the Emergency Management and Homeland Security Professionals Association. He developed Los Altos’s emergency/disaster plan, conducted training exercises for disaster response and recovery, and coordinated emergency/disaster responses.