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Credit: Shonagh Rae

Natural disasters are unpreventable, not unpredictable: The United States sustains about 10 declared major disasters a year. And architects’ expertise in immediate response and long-term mitigation is an underused resource. Disaster-oriented design, says Rachel Minnery, AIA, LEED AP, chair of the AIA’s Disaster Assistance Advisory Group, is the foundation of sustainability: once the province of specialists, it is now something that every architect should understand. Increasing awareness of risks underscores what she calls “the bittersweet result for everyone after a disaster,” an enhanced sense of responsibility.

In Florida’s four-hurricane 2004 season (Charley, Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne), “a state employee with a degree in communications and no additional training was allowed to assess the damage and determine if homes and businesses were safe,” says Orlando-based Advisory Group member Michael Lingerfelt, AIA, LEED AP. “I thought that was unconscionable. You have architects and engineers who are licensed for the health, safety, and welfare of the public in Florida, and you’re not using them?” Trained in post-disaster assessment in 2003, Lingerfelt now teaches colleagues at AIA conventions and elsewhere.

Lingerfelt says that a suitable state organizational context would include five elements: a Good Samaritan liability-immunity law; workers’ compensation procedures; training and credentialing standards (“so you can get by the National Guard”); procedures for network activation, notifying architects and engineers alongside first responders; and licensure portability across state lines. “Only California has all five,” Lingerfelt adds. In Missouri, the AIA has partnered with SAVE (Structural Assessment and Visual Evaluation) to certify architects and engineers in investigating building habitability post-disaster. Architects in Missouri and elsewhere undertaking rapid-response evaluation must assign properties color-coded placards.

Hurricane Katrina provided a nationwide wake-up call. AIA New Orleans Center for Design executive director Melissa Urcan, AIA, joined AIA New Orleans after the storm and saw this “sleepy organization” reinvigorated as it launched an Architect Pairing Program to help homeowners afford design services. Reconstruction under the Unified New Orleans Plan lags behind other states’ efforts, Urcan notes, but the business district is repopulating, reversing 20 years of decline.

The storm caught New Orleans’ transportation system short, producing memorable images of stranded New Orleanians. “Clearly, there will be no one point for pickup or leaving ever again in New Orleans,” Urcan says. Evacuations during Hurricane Gustav (2008) fared better, safely moving 18,000 people in two days. AIA New Orleans has worked with the New Orleans Arts Council, Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, and the citizen’s volunteer group Evacuteer.org on design charrettes for 17 pickup points. As an AIA New Orleans’ Legacy Project, designs for the pickup points were displayed at the 2011 AIA convention.

Dean J. Vlahos, FAIA, principal of the DLR Group at WWCOT in Santa Monica, Calif., also stresses transportation resilience. After the 1994 Northridge earthquake, California’s Office of Emergency Services expanded inspection systems, but evacuation networks remain vulnerable. “Off of the coast of Southern California there exists an underwater shelf adjacent to a 1-foot-deep crevice,” he says. “In the event of a major earthquake this shelf could be severed and drop into the ocean, creating a huge tsunami that could wipe out a portion of the coastline.

“The general population believes, ‘My building is earthquake-proof since it was designed to the building code,’” Vlahos says. His response: “No, your building is designed to a building code which is only the minimum standard. In an earthquake, it’s not going to fall down on top of you. It will stand long enough to allow you to get out of the building—at which point it may need to be demolished.”

“It’s not an issue of designing that super-safe house,” comments Architecture for Humanity managing director Kate Stohr. “The profession knows how to do that. But after a disaster, nobody puts together the entity that can receive and distribute capital effectively.” Post-Katrina homeowner grants, she says, should have been processed locally and accountably, not through a remote contractor with “unclear bureaucratic mandates” at state, county, and municipal levels. She advises architects to apply “the power of a professional network,” alongside nonprofits and local leaders, to improve public and private funding channels by tying relief to safe construction.

Nuts-and-bolts preparation, Stohr says—the $2 hurricane strap to secure roofs to walls, the distribution of code information to contractors—saves lives. “If you see a project that could, with small refinements, be made safer, and you can recommend what those refinements are, there’s a very good chance that they [homeowners] will go do it. Especially if they hear it from a credible third party.”

Lori Reed, AIA California Council communications director, worked with AIA San Diego staff to coordinate responses and expedite permits after the 2007 San Diego wildfires. The AIACC warns disaster survivors to watch for potential fraudulent activity regarding damage assessment, financing, and rebuilding. For example, unqualified consultants may say, “‘Yeah, you can rebuild on that foundation,’ when, if you poke it with your finger, it turns to chalk,” Reed says. AIA San Diego and AIACC launched public-service announcements after the fires and a toll-free hotline for architects’ advice; AIACC’s Disaster Preparedness Handbook advises disaster victims against hasty decisions. “Individuals need to educate themselves about the rebuilding process and review their options first,” Reed says.

To the New York City Office of Emergency Management, inducing displaced residents to return means restoring whole communities. In FEMA’s “trailers and single-family modular homes,” says commissioner Joseph F. Bruno, “the density they were generally looking at was about 10 residential units per acre. In New York City, we have a density of 200 residential units per acre.”

A 2008 New York City design competition for units rapidly deployable in a hurricane gave $10,000 grants for 10 selected designs, then generated a basic performance spec. The project will release an RFP for prototype construction and study on a CUNY campus within about a year, using the Army Corps of Engineers as general contractor. The goal is large-scale production in the event of a Stafford Act declaration. “We’re trying to influence the federal government—FEMA and HUD—to see this as a local solution to a national problem,” Bruno says.