Issues & AdvocacyGet Involved
Joplin’s Inspiring Lesson: We Can Rebuild
Within 30 minutes after Joplin High School graduates walked across the stage to receive diplomas on May 22, 2011, a Category 5 tornado descended from the sky. The tornado ravaged Joplin’s infrastructure; upward of 7,600 homes were damaged, including 4,000 with catastrophic losses. Seventy-three apartment buildings were rendered uninhabitable, and at least 530 places of employment were destroyed or heavily damaged.
It’s already been more than a year since the second deadliest tornado strike in Joplin, Missouri, ravaged the city. But residents of this Missouri city have shown all of us that with the right kind of help, you can recover from catastrophe, and even create something better.
With so much structural damage, Joplin was a natural candidate for my professional association the AIA’s Disaster Recovery Assistance Task Force, which—led by state and local AIA chapters—trains and encourages architects in disaster recovery. In the earliest days after a disaster, much of the task force’s efforts center on building assessments. As the weeks roll on, architects often engage in long-term comprehensive planning. Much if not all of this work is the volunteer efforts of my colleagues who are specifically trained by the AIA for this community service.
That’s what happened in May 2011, when more than a hundred experts came to Alabama and donated their otherwise billable time to help Alabamans recover from the storms and tornadoes that tore through the Southeast the month before, in April. The American Institute of Architects and its Alabama Council assembled a specially-trained, 165-member team of architects, engineers, building inspectors and fire marshals who began performing safety assessments on homes and other structures. These assessments, which are a necessary step before any real reconstruction can commence, help determine whether buildings are safe for permanent occupancy, temporary or partial occupancy or if structures need a detailed damage assessment and additional work.
The Joplin tornado followed the Birmingham tornadoes less than a month later, so the challenge of finding enough architects to work both disasters was daunting. “I am proud of what AIA as an organization contributed to Joplin,” says Michelle Swatek, executive director of AIA St. Louis. “But the real heroes are the Joplin and Springfield architects, especially Brandon Dake, AIA, and Jeffrey Smith, AIA, the president and president-elect of AIA Springfield in Missouri, who selflessly donated countless hours to Joplin.”
The AIA assisted Joplin in many ways; it offered Dake resources and oversight to keep the region unified and to support Joplin’s Citizens Advisory Recovery Team (CART). Erica Rioux Gees, AIA, of AIA Legacy, coordinated relationships between architects and later gathered professionals for the Joplin Charrette. Mike Vieux, AIA, a key player in the recovery for Greensburg, Kan., offered invaluable guidance to Dake and Smith.
Sadly, a lot of the damage that communities see after a disaster could be prevented with better building codes. Following Hurricane Katrina, LSU Hurricane Center estimated that “economic losses, which include damage to buildings and contents, would be reduced an estimated 65 percent” if the buildings in the affected areas of Mississippi had protected building openings, improved roof-deck connections, and improved roof-to-wall connections. These simple improvements could have saved roughly $3 billion in tax-payer funded recovery aid.
That’s why the AIA has joined the Buildstrong Coalition, an alliance of business and consumer organizations, to advocate for the Safe Building Codes Incentive Act (HR 2069). This federal legislation would incentivize states to adopt model building codes that would fortify buildings, protect property, and save lives. We commend the bill’s 28 bi-partisan sponsors and co-sponsors, but we also urge states to adopt these model codes whether or not it reaches the President’s desk.
Let’s be grateful that so far this year, tornadoes have not yet struck with the force and regularity of the tornado season of 2011. But if they do, Joplin has shown us that you can recover and rebuild. My fellow architects are ready to help.
Joe Smith is executive director of AIA.....