On Friday, October 1, 2010, streams alongside the King of Prussia Mall in eastern Pennslyvania, swollen by 8 inches of rain, flooded the mall’s 112 plaza-level stores and food outlets with 2 to 30 inches of water. Coming just eight weeks before Black Friday, the flood could have spelled disaster for affected merchants!
NEST had the honor of being one of the facilities management companies called upon to work with a number of retailers on clean up their stores and be interviewed for an article featured in PRSM Magazine.
How King of Prussia Mall and Merchants Handled a Flood of Problems
By Mary Lou Jay
On Friday October 1st, 2010, streams alongside the King of Prussia Mall in eastern Pennsylvania, swollen by 8 inches of rain, flooded the mall’s 112 plaza-level stores and food outlets with 2 to 30 inches of water. Coming just eight weeks before Black Friday, the flood could have spelled disaster for affected merchants.
Fortunately, most stores were able to get back into full operation by that deadline. The process that the mall and its retailers went through to reach it provides insights into the importance of emergency planning, fast response and effective communication.
Here’s a look at what happened and at the lessons learned from several (sometimes conflicting) perspectives.
Security personnel notified mall Manager Kravco Simon of the flooding around 2 a.m.
“We immediately enacted our emergency management plan,” says Bob Hart, the mall’s general manager. That included notifying cleanup vendors, corporate insurance representatives, township officials, the board of health and mall retailers. The mall also used an emergency notification system to contact mall employees who had signed up for the alerts.
Calls began going out around 4 a.m. and clean up operations started just two hours later. Although the mall is responsible only for common areas, with the tenants responsible for their space, “on that first morning we relaxed the rule and our people were going into the stores as well to help get the water out and get these stores open,” says Hart.
NEST International, a facilities management company, had 15 King of Prussia mall clients impacted by the disaster. Company employees who heard a news report about the mall immediately began alerting clients and NEST’s contractors.
After a quick initial assessment, NEST had its contractors begin vacuuming out the water. “Immediately after that, we started the drying and dehumidification process. Once you remove the standing water you need to move the air around so that it minimizes permanent damage,” says Bob Baumann, NEST’s construction manager.
The mall remained open, although 25 stores and the food court – which was most significantly affected – remained closed. “Having an active emergency plan and having the vendors ready to come out was critical in keeping the mall open that first day,” notes Hart.
Assessment and Reconstruction
Once the initial cleanup was completed, the mall and its retailers had to determine the level of reconstruction work required to avoid longer-term problems with mold and air quality. Kravco Simon hired R. A. West Associates Inc., an environmental consulting firm, to serve as its industrial hygienist.
“We became involved on October 2, and in a few days following we did an assessment of each one of the affected stores,” says Bob West, the company’s president. “By October 8, we put out a specific work plan for each of the affected stores.”
The food court remained closed during this reconstruction process. Some retailers closed for several days to a few weeks while work was being done. Others remained open during the day while reconstruction work went on at night. Once the store reported its work was completed, West would test the area and check that the required work had been done.
Kravco Simon and West maintained a large spreadsheet that showed the progress of every store in meeting this work plan. With work going on around the clock in the mall, it also added security guards at mall entrances at night and required sign-ins so that it could track workers’ locations.
“This became more of a construction management [project] rather than an emergency management issue,” says Hart. “It was very organized, very controlled by us.”
Varying Perspectives on Post-Emergency Efforts
Hart says its tenants’ emergency preparedness varied greatly. “There were a number of proactive stores that had an emergency plan, but other did not. Those were the ones that didn’t open that first weekend,” says Hart.
Because each store’s scope of work was different, the mall had to deal with each retailer individually. “We did a lot of walking around and speaking to merchants,” says Kathy Smith, the mall’s marketing manager.
But some retailers – especially those that had emergency plans in place – felt that they did not get enough written information from the mall. This made it difficult to get necessary corporate approvals to move forward with repairs.
“All of the information was work-of-mouth; nothing was ever document, which presented a lot of problems in itself,” says Baumann. “When we’re spending these kinds of dollars, we need some documentation on what needs to be done.”
Nor did all stores agree with the mall’s recommendations. Rite Aid ended up hiring its own industrial hygienist. “There was a lot of back and forth between the reports from the mall’s industrial hygienist and ours and some negotiation of what was necessary and what wasn’t,” says Mark Foley, facilities director at Rite Aid.
Working within that mall situation was challenging because of the number of people involved, Foley says. “Typically, in a freestanding space, we wouldn’t have as many fingers in the pie. We deal with these situations ourselves and we’re experienced with it, whereas a mall may not have that same level of experience.”
Communications: Room for Improvement?
Hart believes that Kravco Simon did a good job in communicating with mall tenants throughout the reconstruction process. He says Kravco Simon sent out several memos and letters (either hand-delivered, e-mailed or sent priority mail) to both local store managers and the corporate headquarters. The company also updated the mall’s website on a daily basis to keep tenants and the public informed about which stores were open.
NEST’s clients wanted more. “Once the situations was assessed, we would have liked to have communication from the mall of the next steps, but also of where to go and who to go throughout the process if you have more questions and if you needed clarification,” says Jason Bishop, NEST’s client services officer. “A lot of work was done after hours, from 9 p.m. to 9 a.m., and it was challenging because we didn’t have any kind of contact names and numbers to get a hold of mall management when certain situations would arise.”
Foley isn’t as critical. “Communications could have been better, but I can also sympathize with the mall,” he says. “Some of the organizations that they were working with obviously didn’t have the benefit of the resources that we had, and I’m sure it was challenging dealing with all those different occupants.
“We probably should have worked more as a team with the mall right from the start to let them know what our procedures were and how we were going to approach this,” he adds.
All but four of the mall stores were reopened by the Black Friday deadline. With clean up over, the mall and its retailers have had some time to reflect on what they learned about emergency response and its aftermath.
1. Planning is essential
Lack of pre-planning for disaster was the main reason that some stores took so long to get back into full operation, says Kellie D’Andrea, NEST’s executive vice president. “Since many of the retailers didn’t know how to act in this situation, everything became reactionary as opposed to organized and planned.”
But the need for planning went beyond initial response. Although stores had to react quickly, those that fared best also took the time to formulate a well-thought-out plan of recovery. When they needed to remove clothing to begin remodeling work, for example, those retailers took the time to find the right boxes, and pack the clothing carefully so it wouldn’t wrinkle and locate a safe storage location. They had timelines listing each step that needed to be taken along the way.
Those that didn’t do that planning still had wet merchandise in the stores two weeks later.
2. Get decision-makers on scene
One reason for some stores’ slow response was the fact that their corporate offices were trying to manage the situation from a distance.
“It’s very difficult to assess remotely; you really need to be there in person or to have someone there as your advocate,” says Joe DeLuca, vice president of construction and store planning at New York & Company. Its store had 10 inches of water. “You need to get there at the beginning to make sure that the information you’re getting is good. You have to assess the facts as quickly as possible to make the right business decision.”
Bishop says that stores that were willing to shut down for a short remodeling period were back to normal more quickly than those that were ordered by remote company executives to remain open during remodeling. “It was very chaotic trying to work in a store where it was open and remodeling pieces of it at a time,” he adds.
3. Keep emergency information updated
Hart says that the mall is already analyzing ways to improve its emergency response and plans to meet with retailer to ask for input once the holiday season is over. One priority is to update the mall’s list of corporate contacts to make sure that it includes the name and contact information for the decision-maker for each store’s operations side.
4. Practice for emergencies
Although the mall already runs its own emergency preparedness drills, Hart says it plans to include retailers in these exercises more often. Mall managers will also encourage retailers to develop their own emergency response plans complete with emergency contacts they can rely on.
5. Be ready for the press
Public relations is one aspect of emergency planning that sometimes gets overlooked. “Having a PR plan in place for an emergency like this is critical. You need to be prepared to respond immediately to the posting of photos and videos and speculations that comes up on Facebook and Twitter and YouTube,” says Smith.
6. Be proactive
“The retailers that were proactive, that had a disaster recovery plan, that trusted their contractors and that [had corporate representatives who] visited the malls personally got the stores open,” says Phil Dwyer, NEST president. “Those that were indecisive, that didn’t have a disaster recovery plan, and didn’t have the authority to make a decision lost thousands of dollars in sales. Those are the two sides of the story.”
Mary Lou Jay is a freelance writer.