Real Estate News

As Erika approaches, construction companies batten down

A construction crane towers above the SLS Lux Brickell, a 57-story condo going up in Miami's Brickell district, on Thursday, Aug. 6, 2015.
A construction crane towers above the SLS Lux Brickell, a 57-story condo going up in Miami's Brickell district, on Thursday, Aug. 6, 2015. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Batten down the dumpsters. Secure the cranes. Clear the debris.

There’s a storm in the Caribbean and it could be headed for South Florida’s building boom.

It’s not clear yet exactly wherer Tropical Storm Erika will hit and how powerful it will be — but with massive construction projects underway across the region, no builders want to get caught unprepared.

“You don’t want to become overly aggressive in shutting down a job site and sending people home and disrupting an expensive project,” said Daniel Whiteman, vice chairman at Coastal Construction. “But we’ve gone ahead and started to prepare as if it’s going to hit.”

A construction site is a hurricane’s dream — and a potential nightmare for neighbors. Loose tile, plywood sheets and boards litter the ground. Portable toilets are one strong gust from turning into airborne missiles. Glass-less windows stand naked, inviting in water and wind.

There are about 110 new high-rise condo buildings under construction east of I-95 in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, according to Add the thousands of single-family homes being built and major projects underway such as the Frost Science Museum and Brickell City Centre and you have construction companies scrambling to lock down their sites before the storm hits.

“The first thing we do is start cleaning the job sites of all debris and emptying the Dumpsters,” said Whiteman, speaking on his cell phone as he surveyed workers’ progress at the under-renovation Saxony Hotel in Miami Beach. Coastal is building more than a dozen new luxury condo projects in South Florida.

Plywood, trash and drywall all have to be gathered up and hauled away. Tools need to be moved toward the center of buildings where they won’t get scattered by the wind and cause damage.

But the big cranes as common on Miami’s skyline as umbrellas on the beach ? Those can pretty much stay where they are.

“Normally at night we lock those tower cranes down so they can’t move,” said Jeffrey Slade, director of operations at Miller Construction, which just started building a $20.8 million condo project in Bay Harbor Islands. “But in a storm the cranes are set up to ‘weather vane.’ They can spin up to 360 degrees as the wind blows them around so it will put them in the optimal position. It’s much safer than locking them down.”

(Mobile cranes — the kind with horizontal booms that are mounted on trucks — do have to be taken down.)

Many companies also ask their workers to stock their homes with supplies early on.

“If the hurricane turns toward us, we need you at work,” Slade said. “We need to make sure you’re not scrambling to take care of personal things when we need you here protecting the site.”

Storm’s a brewin’

A hurricane can throw a major spanner in the works of developers, who need to protect their investments.

This year alone in the tri-county region, developers have launched residential and nonresidential projects worth a total of $6.1 billion, according to Dodge Data & Analytics.

“The overall hurricane preparedness plans are made years in advance,” said John Murphy, regional director of safety for Suffolk Construction’s southeast division

“We started cleaning up the sites on Tuesday for this one,” Murphy said. “We’re looking to tie down, remove or band up everything.”

Suffolk is in charge of construction at All Aboard Florida and Miami World Center, among other projects.

Even developers’ scale models are threatened by the storm.

Carlos Rosso, president of the condo division at Related Group, said if Erika gets worse the company may evacuate the seven sales centers it uses to advertise new condo projects in Miami-Dade and Broward.

“We may have to empty them of all the art and furniture and scale models,” Rosso said.

Rising water poses another threat.

At the Frost museum site, Skanska USA has rigged gasoline-powered pumps in a basement prone to flooding.

“We’ve been building in South Florida for 20 years,” said MacAdam Glinn, a senior vice president at Skanska . “We’ve seen this movie before unfortunately. You’ve just got to be ready.”

Single-family builders also have crews storm-proofing their sites.

“It isn’t rocket science,” said Harry Hollub, president of luxury builder Hollub Homes. “Anything we can tie down, we want to tie it down. Anything that’s open gets boarded up.”

Hollub said he remembers seeing portable toilets miles away from construction sites after Hurricane Andrew devastated South Dade.

“They’re made of fiberglass,” he said, “so they got airborne and just started to sail.”

Office towers brace for impact

Miami’s high-rise glass office towers need protection, too.

“We do keep sandbags so that we can protect any entry doors that may be susceptible to leaking,” said Steven Froot, regional manager for property management at real estate firm Jones Lang LaSalle.

JLL manages about 11 million square feet of local office space, including landmark towers such as the Southeast Financial Center, 801 Brickell and Miami Tower. It organizes tenant town halls before every storm season so companies in each building can prepare.

Froot said building staff keep supplies of flashlights, canned foods, water and other necessities if they need to be there overnight. “The new buildings are all using impact windows and generators,” he added. “That has become the standard for new construction.”

That wasn’t the case 10 years ago.

When Hurricane Wilma hit South Florida in 2005, Cesar Alvarez was staying with his family in a hotel just a block away from his Brickell office. (Alvarez’s waterfront home in Coconut Grove was in an evacuation zone.)

He said he could see and hear windows popping out of glass towers up and down Brickell Avenue — but not at 1221 Brickell Ave., where his law firm, Greenberg Traurig, then had its Miami offices.

“I was very happy because there wasn’t any damage,” said Alvarez, the firm’s co-chairman and former CEO. But when the storm died down, a partner at the firm called him: most of the windows on the side of the building facing the water, which Alvarez couldn’t see, had been destroyed.

Greenberg Traurig has since moved into the Wells Fargo Center, which opened in 2010 with hurricane-resistant windows.

“I feel good that we are in this building but it’s not only how solid your windows are,” Alvarez said. “If debris is flying around you always have the potential for a breach.”

Nicholas Nehamas

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