Pre-Planning & Managing Disasters To Minimize Loss And Stress

Posted by Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell on Aug 15, 2023 12:00:00 AM

Fires, floods, hurricanes, burglaries and finding hazardous chemicals in storage units are just some of the disasters you may have – or will encounter – running a self-storage facility. 

“Unfortunately, I’ve had the misfortune of experiencing about every disaster with our facilities,” says Beau Agnello, senior vice president at Pogoda Companies in Farmington Hills, Mich. Those disasters have included all those mentioned above, as well as the 2021 winter freeze that gripped much of the country, including south Texas. According to, the storm was the costliest winter weather event in U.S. history. Agnello says several of their properties were affected with power outages and broken pipes. 

Agnello says a comprehensive disaster plan put together before the event, as well as managers who were trained in disaster management helped the company get through the crisis. 

Getting your facility through a disaster can be broken down into two parts: Pre-disaster planning and disaster management during and after the event. 

5 Keys to Pre-Disaster Planning 

1. Identify the types of disasters your facility may experience.

Kenneth Nitzberg, chairman and CEO of Devon Self Storage in Emeryville, Calif. says to identify the types of natural disasters most common to your area. For example, California facilities should identify earthquakes and wildfires. “If you’re in the business long enough, you will encounter different disasters, so you need to try to have a contingency for each.” When identifying the types of disasters, our experts say it’s a good idea to also make sure your facility is prepared with supplies such as emergency kits, food and water for managers who live on site, ice melt and other supplies. 

2. Make sure you, your employees and tenants have proper insurance.

M. Anne Ballard, president of marketing, training and developmental services for Universal Storage Group in Atlanta, Ga. points to a fire at one of their facilities that destroyed the office, manager’s apartment, and tenant units in one building. “The owner had good property insurance that included replacement value and loss of use,” says Ballard. “All of the tenants had insurance on their belongings and the manager had content insurance on her belongings in the apartment.” 

3. Put together a written disaster plan.

Ballard says the Emergency Preparedness Manual  assembled by the Self Storage Association is a great blueprint in assisting you build your own disaster plan. “We have what we call the Red Book, which started in print but is now in digital form as well,” says Ballard. “The book has everything managers and employees need to know about what to do in the event of a disaster.” Carol Mixon, president of SkilCheck Services in Tucson, Ariz., says these books are very helpful in the event of a disaster. “Most managers don’t even know where all the shut off valves are for water and utilities,” says Mixon.

Ballard adds the books should contain everything you can think of that will assist you or your employees during a disaster including step by step instructions, detailed information about insurance policies and agent contact numbers, utility bill account numbers (including copies of the bills) and contact numbers as well as usernames and passwords. “Don’t list them as ‘username’ and ‘password,’ label them as something else to help protect the facility, but they should be included and updated as employees change,” says Ballard. “Think of what you would need if you didn’t have access to your office.” Mixon also advises not to forget to include contact numbers that you may not think of such as poison control, mental health, and domestic crisis lines.  

Nitzberg says no matter how long you’ve been in the business, you may encounter a new scenario. “When you come across something new, make sure to add it to your book so there are instructions in case it happens again.” 

4. Assemble and foster relationships with remediation companies.

Nitzberg says they recently had a fire at one of their facilities and had to call a remediation company. Experts advise it’s a good idea to build a relationship with the companies before the disaster strikes. If there is a natural disaster, for example, affecting many different people and businesses, if you’ve fostered a relationship with a company, they may be able to help you sooner. 

5. Make sure your rules about storage are explained to tenants.

Most long-time facility owners and managers have a story about the vehicle that caught fire in a unit, strange smells that ended up being drug related chemicals or even lithium batteries catching fire. Ballard says some disasters can be avoided if tenants know and understand the rules about storing hazardous materials and chemicals, vehicles, gasoline, and other items. “Of course, you may not know what every tenant is storing, but regularly inspecting the property can help,” she says. “When they’re moving in, go out and inspect the rest of your property, but be nosy in what they’re storing as you walk by.” 

Mixon says she detected a strange odor coming from a unit while out walking a property. It ended up being chemicals used to make methamphetamine. 

Getting Through the Disaster as it Happens  

1. Call emergency services first.

“Identify the disaster and if it’s a fire, call the Fire Department,” says Nitzberg. “It may sound silly, but in an emergency sometimes people panic and forget the basics.” 

2. Make sure to prioritize safety of employees and tenants.

Mixon says your employees should be trained in helping tenants exit the building, as well as ensuring all escape routes are practiced and marked prior to any emergency. As well, she says safety equipment such as fire extinguishers, which may help people escape, should always be in good working order. Ballard says your employees should understand their safety, as well as that of tenants on the property come first. “Don’t be a hero. If they’re being robbed, they should cooperate, if it’s a tornado, they should take cover without regard for computers or records or anything except their safety.” 

3. Place the appropriate calls.

Once emergency services are notified and everyone is safely out of danger, experts say the handbook should outline who should be called first. Most managers who work for owners or management companies typically call their superior who then coordinate notifying owners, insurance companies and remediation contractors after emergency services gives the green light for re-entry. 

4. Coordinate communication.

Gary Sugarman, COO of William Warren Group in Santa Monica, Calif., says, “Comprehensive and continuous communication should be established with tenants, employees and authorities through all means available such as emails, texts, calls, letters and social media.” He adds the communications should outline what happened, the plan(s), and what tenants and employees should and shouldn’t do. “These may be many different communications over a long period of time,” he says. As well, experts advise to make sure employees understand who is to communicate with the media. “It’s typically the owner or representative of the company,” says Ballard. Finally, communication also includes documenting for your records and for that of the insurance company, anytime you enter or must remove anything from a unit due to safety concerns. Nitzberg says photographic and video documentation is best. Mixon adds, “We require incident reports on every incident, no matter how big or small. We never know when we will need them.” 

5. Set up containers, dumpsters portable bathrooms and temporary office space.

Ballard says the fire that destroyed their office and manager’s unit had them working from the back of a truck until the city approved other temporary buildings and portable bathrooms. Sugarman says it’s important to coordinate with tenants on when and how they may go through and move their property and to also have dumpsters for them to use as well as containers for items that have been separated from the units. “It’s very important not to just throw everything away, so storing them in containers until they are claimed may be necessary,” he says. “Also communicate clearly to the tenants how long the containers will remain on site before unclaimed property is disposed of.” 

Agnello offers one more piece of advice that will help you and your tenants through the disaster, “Don’t take anything the tenants say personally and show a lot of compassion and empathy. Most people have an emotional attachment to their items so show a lot of patience, which will go a long way in easing tension.”  

Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell is a freelance journalist based in the Ozark Mountains. She is a regular contributor to Mini-StorageMessenger. Her business articles have also appeared in Entrepreneur,,, and The Kansas City Star.