How architects can help communities recover from disasters

An architect assesses Rhode Island building in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Image credit: RI Architects and Engineers Emergency Response Task Force 7.

By Steve Cimino

When Hurricane Katrina made landfall in August of 2005, it quickly became a force unparalleled in the history of modern disasters. Roughly 850,000 homes were destroyed or damaged, leaving countless residents with nowhere to go.

At the time, J. Scott Eddy, AIA, was working on a VA hospital renovation project on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. When he and his team went to evaluate the existing structure in the hurricane’s aftermath, they found a building that was “blown off the slab.”

“The devastation stretched on and on,” Eddy says. “My wife asked me what it looked like. I told her, ‘The same as on TV, but it goes for 90 miles.’”

Ann Somers, AIA, was president of AIA Mississippi in 2005. After Katrina, the American Institute of Architects arrived to provide damage assessment training and resources. These goodwill assessments—done at the behest of the homeowner or small business owner—took roughly two hours, and the number of trained architects involved were low. Furthermore, Mississippi did not, and does not, have a Good Samaritan law, meaning the governor had to issue an executive order to provide liability protection for volunteering architects.

“Katrina was not like any of the other disasters,” Somers says. “The existing response efforts did not work when it came to this storm. There was a learning curve.”

Eddy and Somers are both Mississippi-based; Eddy is president of Barlow Eddy Jenkins, P.A., while Somers is principal at Cooke Douglass Farr Lemons. This wasn’t either of their first contact with natural disasters, and neither one wanted to shirk his or her duties when it came to future disaster assistance and response. As such, they got involved with what has become AIA’s Safety Assessment Program (SAP), not only taking the officially recognized safety assessment course but teaching others to assess as well.

What it means to assess

The goal of building safety assessments is to provide as much clarity as possible. It can take months for local building officials to visit every home or small-scale office impacted in a disaster; a trained architect, however, can visit a structure and—in 30 minutes—declare it safe to inhabit, not safe to inhabit, or safe enough for residents to return and collect their belongings.

“If we can keep people in their homes and businesses after a disaster, that’s the first step in the rebuilding process,” Eddy says. “If you stay, you’ll start cleaning up or moving debris. If we can keep your business open, the economy picks back up. Either way, it helps start moving back toward normal.”

Michael Lingerfelt, FAIA, is the president at Lingerfelt International and trained both Eddy and Somers in building safety assessments. “I’ve trained 1,882 architects and engineers, in total, from all over,” he says, before reading off over a dozen states and territories where concerned design professionals have gathered under his tutelage to help start communities on the path to recovery.

In late 2017, he traveled to Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria to train 73 architects and engineers. He saw firsthand how devastated the island was, more than ever reinforcing the need for architects to respond. “I was on the ground after Katrina,” he says. “I’ve traveled to third-world countries. I thought I was prepared. I was not.”

The goal of the SAP is to create pockets of similarly equipped assessors across the nation; then, when a disaster strikes a state and its own architects are struggling in the aftermath, neighboring architects can come in and help with assessments of their own.

“When we finish with the training,” Somers says, “we tell all the architects in the class, ‘Now you know us; when there’s another disaster in Mississippi, we expect you to be there.’”

Sharing the cost

These building safety assessments are free to the public; the participating architects provide their time, pro bono, to assist those in need. But what happens when local and state officials raise an eyebrow?

“We’ve gotten a lot of pushback,” Eddy says. “A state legislator in Mississippi once told me, ‘What do we owe you? There’s no such thing as a free lunch.’ But there’s no catch.”

When it comes to the financial impact of the assessments, the only question that should be asked is, “How much is this going to save my taxpayers?” Lingerfelt notes that, during the 2011 tornadoes in Alabama, he trained architects who went on to voluntarily assess over 7,000 buildings in the area.

“In a disaster of that magnitude,” he says, “FEMA picks up 75 percent of the tab and the local government picks up 25 percent. So when the local government has to mobilize police, the fire department, contractors, or debris removal, they’re on the hook for a quarter of that. It was accounted that Alabama architects provided $300,000 worth of services; that’s all money the taxpayers didn’t have to come up with.”

“That bit of information,” he adds, “usually gets someone’s attention.”

Learn more about working with an architect in your area, by contacting an AIA chapter near you.

 A full version of this story can be found on AIA.org.