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From protecting life and property to tracking scattered personnel to small details such as finding a functioning ATM, last year’s disastrous hurricanes had many lessons for shopping center managers.

Some of those lessons were discussed at a special session at ICSC’s Fall Conference held in Chicago during the past week, and speakers spoke with GSR Ticket before the event about strategies for dealing with such ovents.

“Last year was unprecedented for disaster,” said panel moderator Julie Jones, first vice president of management, operations and capital deployment of General Growth Properties. The Chicago-based company owns Riverwalk Marketplace in New Orleans and nearby Oakwood Center. “We know the key is being well-positioned for any disaster.”

Fortunately, none of the panelists lost personnel in the various storms. But transportation, communication and security were key issues, despite massive preparations by all involved that have become standard. CBL & Associates Properties even has gone to the point of wrapping rooftop HVAC units to keep panels from flying away during a storm, and has ensured that its staff has trained for any possible disaster.

“Since Sept. 11, we require all our mall [staff] to go through disaster training, to go through a drill with all the local municipal officials,” said Jerry Sink, senior vp of mall management of CBL & Associates Properties, Chattanooga. CBL’s Turtle Creek Mall in Hattiesburg, MS, was closed for several weeks after Katrina, largely due to a roof cave-in at anchor Dillard’s. Other CBL centers also were damaged to a lesser extent by the disaster. “It’s been very, very helpful.”

But despite days of advance notice, Katrina brought destruction on a scale never before seen, with consequences no one could have predicted – or fully prepared for.

Days before Katrina hit, General Growth put together a multidisciplinary team that included a professional disaster relief team. It had a designated location to evacuate key employees. But when the city ordered a mandatory evacuation, those plans changed fast.

“This was a matter of loss of life,” Jones said.

Employees scattered.

“We felt we were very prepared for a hurricane,” said expected panelist Lisa Manzella, general manager of the Shops at Canal Place in New Orleans. “We weren’t as prepared for the looting that took place before and after.”

Canal Place anchor Saks Fifth Avenue was looted and burned in the immediate aftermath of the storm. Mall security staff had been onsite, ready to ride out Katrina, “but at some point, there were more looters there than security,” Manzella recalled.

Meanwhile, the rest of the staff had evacuated to neighboring states and elsewhere in Louisiana. Madison Marquette located and contracted with Los Angeles-based Andrews International Security, which dispatched armed guards to the mall to handle the looters. The National Guard also came in to assist.

General Growth, too, hired an outside agency to protect its staff when they came in post-storm to assess the damage to Riverwalk and other properties. Today, Manzella advises that a similar relationship with an outside security agency be established prior to a disaster.

“Once a [future] storm hits a category two, we’re calling them,” Manzella said. “We see it as cheap insurance, and piece of mind.”

The days following the storm also taught some lessons about relationships with personnel. Finding evacuees was a major challenge for nearly everyone. Though all had routine emergency contact information on employees, information needs to be deeper in the event of a regional crisis, when the emergency contact person likely has left the area, too.

“We had 18 people we couldn’t get hold of,” recalled James Roberts, regional VP, South, of marketing of the Mills Corp., the Chevy Chase, MD-based owner of Esplanade in New Orleans. “Their cells and home phones didn’t work, and we were trying to find their closest relatives outside the city. It took us at least six or seven days to find all 18.”

Today, the companies say they tell staff to check in with someone at the company who’s not in the affected area. Mills established a toll-free phone number for employees to call to check in after a crisis. Mills Corp. has acquired satellite phones at their properties, and CBL is looking into it.

And sometimes, preparation requires looking at little details. Edens & Avant’s neighborhood strip centers do not have an on-site manager, complicating its efforts to assess damages at its properties. The Columbia, SC, company has projects in both Florida and Mississippi, and therefore was affected by Hurricanes Wilma and Katrina.

“With Hurricane Katrina, we did have some damage, but our property manager couldn’t get gasoline to see the property,” said Hal Cottingham, VP of property management of Edens & Avant, another expected speaker.

“He also couldn’t get cash, because the ATMs didn’t have power,” Cottingham said. “We reviewed our policy, and we’re going to find a way to get gasoline and cash to our managers.”

The area is recovering, all note. Esplanade reopened about 30 days after the storm. Riverwalk reopened in November. Canal Place reopened in February, and Saks will open its brand new flagship at the center in November. Oakwood Center remains closed. But even as most of the centers return to some semblance of normal, the memories, the lessons, and the emotions remain.

“It made us closer as employees. They were a close-knit group,” Roberts said. “Now, they’re a family.”

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