Surviving Sandy: Behind the Scenes with REBNY in Aftermath of Storm

East Coast Begins To Clean Up And Assess Damage From Hurricane SandyAs forecasters became more and more certain that a monster storm named Sandy was barreling toward Manhattan in the 48 hours leading up to its landfall on Monday, October 29, Real Estate Board of New York President Steven Spinola lay in a hospital bed recovering from a sudden medical emergency.

But the hospital stay didn’t prevent him and others at REBNY from mobilizing one of the most concerted disaster recovery efforts in the organization’s history.

Two days after the storm hit, working from his bedroom on doctor’s orders, Mr. Spinola called Department of Buildings Commissioner Robert LiMandri with one thing on his mind: how to get owners back into their buildings.

“Everyone assumed it was going to be a bad storm, but I don’t think anyone believed it would be the storm that it was,” Mr. Spinola said. “We were trying to come up with a structure to allow building owners back into their buildings. And lower Manhattan was the primary target for us.”

Mr. Spinola struck a quick deal with Mr. LiMandri for an alternative to buildings’ safety alarm systems. These systems normally alert staff about issues with sprinkler systems or fires, but many were destroyed or dramatically impacted because of flooding. Mr. LiMandri agreed to allow safety managers stationed throughout the buildings to act in place of the systems, the first step in bringing buildings back online faster than many had predicted.

Last week, with just a few buildings still closed in lower Manhattan, Mr. Spinola breathed a sigh of relief as he sat down with The Commercial Observer to reflect on the events leading up to the storm, revealing the behind-the-scenes steps of the real estate industry’s swift counterattack to Sandy’s wrath.

By the accounts of some REBNY staff, the actual preparations for Sandy started up to a week before the storm hit lower Manhattan, as REBNY worked hand in hand with the Department of Buildings to advise members on precautions they could take—from sandbagging to sealing off construction sites—in the event that the storm followed its forecasted trajectory toward the Northeast.

“The question was, how do we tie down construction sites and what needs to be done to do that safely … and we obviously communicated that info and what the process was going to be to the members,” Mr. Spinola said, recalling the crane that infamously dangled for days over the One57 development on West 57th Street.

“Thank God it didn’t fall, but obviously it was put up properly, and what Barnett and Tishman did there actually kept it from falling,” he said. “The city was very good at preparing for the storm and making sure construction sites were secured.”

Mr. Spinola was released from the hospital, where he was treated for an intestinal ailment, the day before the storm hit, and he worked from home during his recovery. He incessantly toggled between phone and email, coordinating efforts with his staff to provide REBNY members with all information possible on the storm, what it might bring and how to prepare.

Among the key players taking lead roles in assisting with Mr. Spinola’s efforts were REBNY Senior Vice President Angela Pinsky, former Executive Vice President Shannon Fales, Assistant Vice President of Government Affairs Paimaan Lodhi and policy analyst Ryan Baxter.

Mr. Spinola and his team scrambled to pool information from various resources like the Office of Emergency Management (OEM), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Hurricane Center (NHC) and the Real Estate Information Sharing & Analysis Center as the storm approached.

“We really just were trying to ease anyone’s concerns and give them whatever information we could to really make them feel confident that the world wasn’t about to end,” Mr. Baxter said.

REBNY members Allen London of Solstice Residential Group LLC and Larry Kochman of E-J Electric Installation Co., two heroes to emerge during the storm, volunteered to camp out at OEM’s headquarters.

They did so for a week, alternating 12-hour shifts to provide REBNY staff with updates about street closures, transportation, and the status of ConEd and Verizon, so they could send email alerts out to members.

“We were sending out two, three, four, five emails a day,” Mr. Spinola said.

In the days following the storm’s landfall, Mr. Spinola and his staff would mobilize industry leaders and resources to assist those who were hardest hit, continuing to dispense information to connect those in need with the generators, water pumps and free office space being offered up by landlords across the city.

“It was pretty stressful,” Ms. Pinsky admitted.  “We were doing everything possible to get useful, timely information out there, and if the news reported something and we didn’t have it, people were asking us why.”

Lower Manhattan went dark for days, with companies shutting down due to power outages and flooding. Data from Jones Lang LaSalle issued on November 5 showed that 49 buildings in lower Manhattan remained closed.

But REBNY’s efforts, along with those by the city, led to a counter-flood of free temporary office space offered up by industry players like Muss Development, Forest City Ratner, Related Management, the Lightstone Group and Brookfield Properties.

“I believe the city’s real estate industry is the most charitable by far, and these people are used to stepping up,” Mr. Spinola said. “We didn’t manage the space, but we made other members aware of it so they could make the appropriate phone calls to make arrangements.”

When much of the smoke—or water—had cleared in the weeks following the storm, Mr. Spinola’s efforts shifted to a focus on prevention. He assembled a committee of real estate professionals to formulate recommendations, including “building resiliency recommendations,” for city and state policy makers.

On November 30, when roughly half of the buildings closed had come back online, Mr. Spinola and his staff mobilized a group of 55 industry experts from various REBNY member organizations, who met at the REBNY offices to flesh out a list of recommendations that would be stamped red and forwarded to city and state officials.

“We pooled together the very talented people who work for our members, who actually lived through Sandy—whether from Tishman Speyer, or Related, or Durst, Silverstein, Goldman Sachs,” Mr. Spinola said.

Some recommendations asked for government incentives for owners willing to retrofit buildings—zoning bonuses, exemptions and low-interest bonds among them. Some outlined the optimal location for fuel tanks, generators and other mechanical equipment in buildings. Others addressed how to prevent issues with suppliers like ConEd and Verizon.

“We really were trying to make sure that everything we put forth had the necessary specifics to be useful across the board, avoiding blanket legislations or requirements,” Mr. Baxter said. “To mandate across the board that every building in lower Manhattan raise its lobby by three feet isn’t a practical solution.”

Another item asked lawmakers to allow cogeneration in the city’s buildings, giving owners the option to “step away from ConEd”—as current regulatory restrictions prevent owners from running their own generators unless an emergency calls for it, Mr. Spinola said.

“We don’t understand that,” he said. “One of the economic incentives for an owner to put in a serious generator into a building would be the ability to run it during normal times and lower their cost of electricity.”

Lastly, the report gleaned valuable information from Goldman Sachs and its pre-Sandy preparations, which left the financial giant’s 200 West Street headquarters mostly unscathed. The firm welded loading docks shut and constructed a 15-foot barrier in front of the building, along with extensive sandbagging, before the storm hit.

The weekend after the November 30 meeting, Gov. Andrew Cuomo created three commissions to examine a number of proposals, and he requested a formal report from REBNY, which was submitted early this month.

“The storm highlighted vulnerabilities across the board, so not everyone had the same issues, but we had to figure out what they all were and put them into this document,” said Mr. Lodhi, the REBNY assistant vice president of government affairs, who helped pool the recommendations into the report and coordinated its dispersal at the city and state levels.

With the recommendations polished off and the hard copy in Gov. Cuomo’s hand, Mr. Spinola looked back on his tenure as president of REBNY to recall other times when the city was tested—a reminder of the gritty determination that got the city through them all.

“We withstood this, we withstood 9/11, we withstood the earlier Trade Center bombing, and we withstood a crime wave in the ’90s,” he said. “As a result of this terrible 48 hours that we had, we are going to see major investment in buildings that will help us come out of it even stronger. We should all be optimistic about the future of Manhattan.”

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