The temptation to make light of recurrent doomsday scenarios (and there are many) is not easy to resist. However, for many of the world’s people, something like Armageddon is increasingly intruding into their lives. As I write this, I’m looking at a report in USA Today that states that in 2011, the United States is on a record pace for high-cost weather-related disasters. This story appeared on May 12, before the full impact of the Mississippi River’s flooding had been felt. The tornadoes that devastated the Carolinas and the lower South earlier this spring or Joplin earlier this summer may not have been Biblical in scope geographically, but for the people in their paths who lost homes, businesses, and loved ones, the terror and heartbreak were epic.
As AIA National Convention keynoter and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman said in New Orleans, you don’t have to believe in global warming to acknowledge that we have a problem. The mere fact that there are more of us on an increasingly crowded planet means more of us are inevitably in harm’s way when natural disaster strikes.
What does not have to be inevitable is the toll. This is where design comes in. Few buildings will escape unscathed the force of a tornado with winds in excess of 250 miles per hour. But they will perform differently according to code and the quality of construction. And lives will be saved if provision is made for safe areas especially designed to provide shelter.
In flood-prone areas, building ever-higher levees can protect communities only up to a point: The water has to go somewhere. In the case of the Mississippi, it simply backed into the tributaries and flooded communities and thousands of acres of farmland.
Houses in post-Katrina New Orleans can be and are being designed to withstand the kind of flooding that inundated the city. Once again, a cry has gone up to take a design approach to the issue of water management in the Mississippi basin. A regional approach would work with (rather than against) nature in the delicate relationship between natural cycles and the needs of human habitation—something the Dutch have managed rather better than we Americans.
Farther afield, events in Haiti, Chile, New Zealand, and, last March, in Japan, reminded us yet again about the relationship between how we build and the impact of natural disasters. Designed to the most-stringent contemporary codes, the buildings in Tokyo swayed but withstood the impact of a powerful earthquake (9.0 on the Richter scale). A lesser earthquake in Port-au-Prince (7.0) buried thousands and left many more injured and homeless throughout the country. This must not be allowed to happen again.
In an encouraging development, the Japanese do not seem to be reflexively turning to a more-of-the-same “solution” by proposing even higher walls to protect human settlement along the nation’s northeast coast. Instead, they are exploring the larger issue of where and how it is appropriate to build in coastal areas prone to earthquakes and tsunamis. It’s a discussion that communities in our own Pacific Northwest ought to be listening to closely.
In the immediate aftermath of this spring’s floods and storms, the AIA reached out to communities throughout the south and central states. An assistance team was assembled to provide relief, damage assessments, and to help guide the recovery in the weeks and months ahead. However, as important as it is for architects to be prepared to extend a helping hand in the face of nature’s Armageddons, our profession has a much larger role to play. Design can mitigate the impact of these events before they occur.
This coming September, I will be leading the AIA delegation to the International Union of Architects Congress in Tokyo. Disaster response and mitigation by design will be high on the agenda. Watch these pages for the results.
Clark D. Manus, FAIA, 2011 President
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