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The Changing Role of Architects in Disaster Response

A major natural disaster occurs, on average, 10 times a year, with minor disasters striking as frequently as once a week. These include floods, tidal waves, tornadoes, ice storms, fires, landslides, hurricanes, and earthquakes, and the damage can range from a few uprooted trees to the near-obliteration of entire communities. In the aftermath, architects immediately contemplate how best to participate in the rebuilding— indeed, this was never more true than following hurricanes Katrina and Rita, when the outpouring of interest and willingness to contribute were overwhelming.

More than 600 AIA members nationwide volunteered, registering on the AIA Web site and offering to step forward and assist wherever needed.

The question was (and is): How can the AIA and its members best be of use?

Three Stages of Disaster Assistance

Disaster assistance typically occurs in three stages:

Emergency: The first response, it relies on quick action and involves providing emergency shelter, medical assistance, food, and other such services. This stage can last two to three weeks.

Relief: Short-term housing, health services, and employment counseling are provided. Formal assessment of damage begins with examinations of buildings, including analysis of historic properties and other structures. This stage may last up to six months.

Recovery: This stage is characterized by rebuilding, with an emphasis on long-term comprehensive planning to enhance the physical fabric of the community. Regulatory changes may be necessary to mitigate the effect of future disasters. This period may last three years or more.

Until 2005, it was believed that the AIA and its members were skilled to respond only to stages two and three, when the focus shifts from emergency response to making homes livable and workplaces functional; licensed building experts—architects, engineers, builders, and others—are often called to assist in evaluating post-disaster conditions and later to help in restoring a community. This approach has been in place for more than 30 years, since the advent of the AIA Disaster Assistance program.
This year, however, the AIA realized that an emergency-phase response was needed to provide for the security, safety, and rebuilding of AIA members’ lives and practices.

This new emergency role included a focus on fundraising while people still felt an emotional connection to the devastation. It included the immediate gathering of information on both members and the communities they serve. It included quickly communicating the status and needs of the architectural community to the membership so assistance could be coordinated nationwide. And it meant investigating the often shifting status of FEMA operations and initiating contact with the ESF-14 long-range recovery program.

In short, while architects are not directly needed to provide emergency assistance—and the AIA will continue to request that members and components resist the urge to travel to affected areas, and focus instead on coordinating locally—clearly there is a role to be filled.

Disaster assistance programs

In 1972 the AIA formally recognized the important role that architects can play in disaster response; in Washington D. C., members and staff began developing strategies to assist components to respond quickly to requests for aid. Since then, several state and local components, including Texas, California, Florida, Kansas, and New York, have developed programs to provide assistance to communities struck by disasters, and more come on line each year.
Currently, the National Disaster Assistance Program at the AIA Center for Communities by Design is working to update the AIA program and foster a more productive relationship with
the larger disaster-response community. The program encourages architects to use their skills to help communities recover from disasters, but also seeks to position the architect as a civic leader whose capabilities are vital to the development of more livable communities.

Organizing a disaster assistance program

In areas vulnerable to disasters, AIA architects should develop a response strategy in advance of an occurrence. As we have seen, destruction
can happen almost immediately, and a prepared architectural community will mean a faster, more effective response.

The most effective AIA programs have been organized at the state level, in part because:

• Most government agencies coordinating disaster assistance and long-term reconstruction are at the state level, and AIA components can most easily plug into this network.

• A state component is better able to examine to discern regional patterns and trends and tailor programs before disaster strikes.

• The local AIA component can most effectively
marshal professional resources from nearby
unaffected areas.

AIA local components should establish rosters of potential volunteer members; thus, each component needs to understand the capabilities and willingness of its members statewide. A directory of all human resources in the region or state promotes such an understanding and should include not only architects but also the allied professional organizations and trades that will need to be marshaled. If there is an overriding lesson that’s been learned from the Gulf Coast experience, it is that communication and coordination are vital—especially as affected areas may be without power, telephone, or public services for at least a week.

To avoid duplication of rescue efforts, a coalition must be formed by representatives from local agencies dealing with construction, code enforcement, general contractors, home builders, insurance industry representatives, other professional associations, and churches. A list of contacts in each of these organizations must be maintained and include cell-phone and e-mail information.

When disaster strikes

After a disaster strikes, architectural expertise must be provided as quickly as possible to assess the nature and extent of the damage. The disaster team’s response should be patterned on the general plan formulated prior to the disaster, with any necessary emergency changes. State and local members of the AIA disaster assistance team will be called, depending on need and expertise.

A centralized headquarters will prove invaluable to communications, coordination, and training. A conference room at the local AIA chapter or an architect’s office can serve as the team’s “war room” and readied with the appropriate equipment. Again, the collection of cell-phone numbers and e-mail addresses is priority number one.

Adequate accommodations for out-of-town team members must be secured and can be problematic. In the Gulf Coast, this remains challenging even today, given the great many displaced citizens needing temporary housing. It is therefore critical to rely on component members who can travel in and out of the affected area without need for housing.

A response team with one lead contact person should be assembled. Each member will be assigned a specific job from a list of responsibilities that includes field evaluation work; connecting with local, state, and federal officials; “Good Samaritan” on-site consultations; and press outreach.

The team should consider both short- and longterm activities; though it may seem premature, the most important responsibility is planning for long-term recovery, which can be initiated by advising public authorities of their options. This will help provide affected citizens with an emotional outlet and a vehicle to restore hope.

What to do after the crisis

Architects with a reconstruction/redevelopment program can envision a positive and imaginative recovery opportunity. Since local and state officials need to make long-term decisions that will affect and may even significantly alter the built environment, it is important that they are made aware of the opportunities for change. Among these are comprehensive neighborhood redesign, urban redesign, landscape redesign, preservation, appreciation of little known assets, and utility relocation. The silver lining of a disaster is the opportunity to remedy underperforming aspects of a city.

The architectural community should visually and verbally articulate a positive potential future. Timing is important—and, based on experience gleaned from recent disasters such as 9/11 and Katrina, time is becoming increasing short. Using established positive relationships with allied professions and local community leaders, the AIA disaster assistance team should be ready to suggest changes to a city’s comprehensive plan and building codes, and educate others in the community about the options available.

Leading to One AIA

The AIA continues to develop a nationwide network of volunteers who are interested in providing disaster assistance, and many AIA components are establishing new programs or growing existing ones in both scale and expertise. Collectively, this national partnership can become a highly effective means of delivering the skills of the profession to devastated regions. Together —under the theme of One AIA—the architectural community can become a clearinghouse for information, a source of the latest research and manuals on hazard-resistant design and planning, and a beacon of hope in the most dire of times. By developing a near-seamless national program, the AIA and its members will become the leaders
of a new day. The AIA Center for Communities by Design is committed to developing such a program—a program we hope is never called upon but know is a necessity.

 

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