The storm warnings were clear enough. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg had ordered a complete shutdown of the nation’s busiest subway system: all 656 miles of it. Superstorm Sandy was roaring our way.

George MillerThe thought that was running through everyone’s mind was “How will the City withstand the storm and the rising tides?” The thought running through my mind was how seriously would our office be impacted with the predicted flooding and power outages? Would the redundant technology systems that we had put in place be adequate to maintain our work flow? How would we communicate with our staff and our clients? Had we done enough to prepare?

In late 2000 we moved our office from the relatively high ground and definitely high rent district of 57th Street and Madison Avenue in Manhattan to Wall Street. Who would think that Wall Street would be less expensive? It was by far.  Many architects including SOM and others were moving downtown and we decided to move south as well.  In November, we moved into the ground floor and mezzanine of 88 Pine Street, a building designed by our firm and a recipient of an AIA Honor Award. Our building fronts on Water Street, a block north of Wall Street.  Ten months later, we were less than a quarter mile from the World Trade Center on that fateful morning when the world changed forever.

Our office was off limits for several weeks after the attack and those who were able to do so worked from their homes connected to our office computers office using our Virtual Private Network (VPN). It became clear then that our office needed to have greater redundancy with our computer systems and data storage. Unlike many larger firms who practice globally, we maintain one office and utilize a central computer system, without the luxury of backup up data centers in other offices. We were utilizing a tape backup data storage system with the tapes being taken off site on regular intervals and stored.

At the time we moved into our building, we also took studio space on the tenth floor where space was available to locate a backup data center. We upgraded our data storage capacity and moved back up servers to this new space. The primary servers and data storage remained in the lower level of our building. We were now quite confident that in the event of a disaster, all of our data would be available and our operations could continue uninterrupted.  

During Hurricane Irene in August of 2011, our office building’s generators and many of the major mechanicals located in the basement of our building were impacted. We encountered power outages again and emergency generators were brought in to keep the building up and running. Our backup systems were adequate and our down time was minimal. But the impact of Superstorm Sandy was to be another story.

On Sunday morning October 28th, with the thought of rising water and potential flooding on our minds, many of us met at our ground floor studio to see what might be done to mitigate the effects of the oncoming storm. We had  our plan desk, printing room, plotters, including 3D plotters all located in basement support spaces connected by a communicating stair to our main ground floor studio. Our library, containing nearly 60 years of books and reference materials along with portions of our archival storage and material samples from around the world were stored in this area. Thankfully many of our historical renderings and models had been moved to off-site storage areas. With the assumption that we might have some water infiltration in the basement, we moved certain documents and equipment to the top of the work surfaces. On the ground floor, we unplugged computers and telephones with some notion that they would not be impacted with an electrical surge. We hustled to do all that we could and headed home prior to the shutdown of the transit systems.

On Monday October 29th, the storm raged the entire day. By around 6 p.m. the power went out nearly everywhere in lower Manhattan. We waited out the storm and late Tuesday morning, I took the nearly two mile walk from my home to the office to see the impact of Sandy. I was not prepared for what was in store for me. The further south I walked, the more disheartened I became.

When I reached our building’s lobby, I knew the damage had been severe. As I entered our two- story studio space, I was confronted with furniture helter skelter, soggy carpet, overturned models, and a water mark on our entry display wall that was 4 feet above the floor line. I stared in disbelief down the communicating stairwell to see water above the intermediate landing to the basement. The East River had found its way into our basement, filling it completely with 18 feet of water before it receded. No power, no servers, no computers, no monitors, no keyboards, no phones, no cell phones, just water, water everywhere. A complete disaster.

No reasonable precautions short of having our entire operation on a higher floor of the building could have been taken to overcome this calamity. Sandy’s force and damage was far beyond everyone’s expectations. Over the next few days, we contacted friends and fellow professionals to ask for assistance. We received many offers of help from architects, engineers, and clients who offered computers and work stations and whatever we needed. We arranged to move our staff into three temporary spaces and we are ever thankful to WSP Cantor Seinuck, Buro Happold, and Fordham University for their assistance. They took us in and provided computers and networks. We had the support of so many friends and colleagues; we began to look for the path forward.

Thankfully, the 10th floor redundant server room was intact and while it was a backup and not the latest equipment, it was a place to start.  Although there was no lighting or power, we carefully disconnected our servers and with the help of our dedicated staff, we carried them down 10 flights of stairs with flashlights as our only light source, loaded them into the back of SUVs and moved them north. We needed everything and set out to Home Depot to buy tables and chairs and power strips. It was like a startup office! We had the assistance from ABC Printing who sent crews from Washington to help us get our servers up and running. Their nearly around the clock assistance was invaluable as our head of IT was flooded out in his New Jersey home with water up to the second floor. And in addition his wife broke her arm during the storm.

Within a week our systems were largely up and running and our staff was reporting to work. We called Dell and placed orders for new computers and servers and we began to look for a temporary space that would accommodate more of our office in one place. One can’t say enough about the dedication of our talented and enthusiastic staff who have persevered though unbelievably difficult times. After a few weeks, another client, Tishman Speyer made us a very generous offer and we moved into another temporary office in 600 Fifth Avenue at Rockefeller Center. We bought more temporary desks and chairs, pulled new T1 lines from the basement to the 18th floor, added more power and continued our work. I believe that if we hadn’t told our clients that we had incurred such a calamitous loss they wouldn’t have realized it.

We settled in and began looking for new permanent space. After looking at many mid-town spaces and considering many options at many different price points, our partners decided to return to 88 Pine Street. We worked with our landlord to relocate our office to the second floor of the building so we might avoid floods that might happen again in the future. Our partners discussed many options and agreed on new collaborative open space plan with new work stations.  The construction is well underway and we our move in date is late June.

What are the lessons that we have drawn from this tragedy? I put them in five categories:

Redundancy

It is critical that all systems are backed up regularly and that an off-site location has been set up to allow access to all data. Test the performance of the system regularly. Consider that you are the victim of a fire or natural disaster that prohibits access to your office and equipment and have a recovery plan. Make certain that your supply chain for new equipment is reliable and can be counted on to provide new equipment on a short notice.

Communications

Establish a system of communications with all staff members to ensure that they are safe and can be reached with any information regarding your operations.

Secure Storage

Off-site storage of valuable documents is critical. Thankfully, the archives of I.M. Pei and James Ingo Freed had been given to the Library of Congress. Henry N. Cobb’s archives were also safe in off-site storage areas. Documents of value must be secure and catalogued.

Insurance

Recovering from a complete loss such as we encountered is a difficult task and not a satisfying or productive use of time. Review the fine print of what your policy covers and more importantly, what it does not. Through the good advice of our insurance broker we had a clause in our policy that covered water damage. It has made a great difference in our ongoing settlements. Documentation is critical to any claim, and if your records are unavailable because of a fire or flood, it is a daunting task to provide the supporting details that insurance companies require. Review your policies now with an eye towards your coverage in the event of a disaster.

People

The greatest resource of any office remains the collaborative and dedicated staff that each and every day contributes to the firm’s success. Our firm is blessed with so many exceptional people. They have endured difficult circumstances yet remain completely dedicated to move our firm forward. They are appreciated. Be sure to engage the staff that can help deal with these unforeseen challenges. Pay particular attention to your IT department, making certain there are people knowledgeable about your systems that can step in when problems occur. And don’t forget your accounting department, because it remains critical to send the invoices out and collect the revenue. Your future depends on it!

Nearly every week we learn of more flooding, fires, devastating tornadoes, hurricanes and the terrible toll that these disasters inflict. Take some time to consider your personal and business circumstances to make certain that you are ready. The time to do it is now!

George H. Miller is managing partner of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners Architects LLP. In 2010, he was president of the American Institute of Architects.