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Emergency Preparedness and El Niño:  10 Ideas for Facility Managers to Consider

October 2015 — Recently, South Carolina was hammered by what has been characterized as a “once in a thousand years” weather event that wreaked havoc across the region.  Whether or not this storm can be attributed to climate change, it is prudent that we prepare.

California, for example, has a history of having too little rainfall followed by too much rainfall.  In the past 50 years, the state has had two El Niño events, and according to the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center, a very significant third one is on the way.

An El Niño is a naturally occurring event, typically caused by warmer-than-normal sea surface temperature which, at least in California’s case, can result in significant rainfall.

And because the state is now in its fourth year of severe drought, the next El Niño may cause very serious flooding, mudslides and damage – much of which the facilities department will be asked to address.

“Areas in Southern California that normally receive seven inches of rain in an entire year had more than 25 inches in the 1997-1998 El Niño,” says Robert Rice, Assistant Director of Buildings and Grounds in Facilities Management at the University of California, Irvine.  That’s more than 300 percent above normal.

This is especially challenging in geographies that typically receive little rain – where a roof that leaks goes unnoticed because there is such a small amount of rain.  The El Niño will leave many unprepared and the damages can be substantial.

The first thing Rice suggests is for building owners and managers to “Understand your risk and begin preparedness planning.  While the details may be different, the thought process for preparing for weather events is no different from planning for other problems or threats to the facilities or people on the campus.”

Rice suggests taking the following actions:

  1. Establish clear priorities. For example, a research university might prioritize below-grade research labs and data centers where a flood can destroy years of research or disable computers and other delicate electronic equipment, over a classroom building.  While there is no right or wrong to the prioritization, it is important to make sure that everyone is on the same page.
  2. Check roofs, clear drains, rain gutters, and downspouts while there is still time to make repairs. And don’t forget road drains, ditches, gutters and culverts to reduce flooding.
  3. Establish an emergency communication system that engages all custodial/facility workers and building owners/facility managers, and make staffing plans with the understanding that many staff members might not be able to make it to work.
  4. Consider the need for portable generators, determine the best locations to store them, and ensure that multiple staff members are familiar with their operations.
  5. Determine what might be an adequate number of sandbags and identify where they should be placed if needed. Once flooding has begun, it is too late for sandbags.
  6. Purchase boots and other rain gear, and have them safely and strategically stored.
  7. Select submersible pumps, wet/dry vacuum cleaners, carpet extractors, blowers and dehumidifiers made for heavy-duty cleanup. Contact some professional flood and restoration specialists before the event, and have them to your campus/building to get their thoughts about preparations.
  8. Check supply closets and storage areas for materials that should be raised off the floor where even minor flooding will cause damage. Let’s face it – no one wants to use water logged toilet tissue.
  9. Discuss the concerns about the upcoming El Niño with administration, faculty, researchers and others to ask them to assess their offices, labs, classrooms, libraries and areas, and consider their individual preparations to minimize damage.
  10. Proactively engage with building occupants about this issue. Consider including a discussion about your preparations in meetings, newsletters and other means, and don’t forget to include information such as who to contact, where to go, etc.

Once all of the preparations and repairs are complete, Rice also suggests conducting an El Niño emergency preparedness drill.  This can be a catastrophic event and thus it is important to practice.

Rice added that UCI Facilities Management is working closely with emergency response personnel and other campus units such as the UCI Police Department and Transportation and Distribution Services to prepare for just such a scenario.  “Just last week we had a tabletop exercise that included a broad range of campus stakeholders,” he said

For up to date weather predictions and information, check the NWS/NOAA El Niño page at http://www.elnino.noaa.gov

Stephen P. Ashkin is Executive Director of the Green Cleaning Network a not-for-profit organization dedicated to educating building owners and suppliers about Green Cleaning, and president of The Ashkin Group a consulting firm specializing in Greening the cleaning industry. He is considered the “father of Green Cleaning” and is coauthor of both The Business of Green Cleaning and Green Cleaning for Dummies.



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