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AIA Disaster Assistance Task Force: Japanese Disaster is a Wake Up Call

By Mike Singer

As Japan grapples with an estimated 18,000 dead, entire villages destroyed with hundreds of thousands left homeless, and the prospect of decades of rebuilding that will cost hundreds of billions, one thing is certain: The architectural community is ready to help.

“We know from our shared experiences following the earthquakes in Haiti and New Zealand, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, as well as the tsunami in Southeast Asia, that the Japanese need our prayers as well as assistance now and during the long effort toward recovery and rebuilding,” said Clark Manus, FAIA, 2011 AIA President. “We are encouraging our members to do what they can to contribute to organizations best able to provide the immediate assistance the Japanese people need in the aftermath of destruction.”

Any need for the AIA to directly participate in Japan’s recovery efforts may be some time away, and the nature and extent of that assistance will depend on invitations from its public officials or other non-governmental organizations. In the meantime, the AIA’s Disaster Assistance Task Force is prepared to help organize that effort and is making sure that lessons learned from that country’s tragedies are heard in the United States.

“Japan’s building codes are among the most advanced in the world,” said Michael Lingerfelt, AIA, president of AIA Florida and a member of the AIA Disaster Assistance Task Force in a phone interview. “Here in the United States, we need to make sure facilities are designed for disasters, which means we need to build better than code." What has happened in Japan, Lingerfelt added, should help raise awareness with local and state officials of the importance of enlisting trained architects in post-disaster efforts and in getting more architects involved.

Lingerfelt has led efforts to recruit and train more than 400 architects and engineers from all 13 AIA Florida components following recent domestic disasters. He developed a memorandum of understanding between the Florida Association of Building Officials and AIA Florida, which allows Florida building officials to enlist and mobilize these 400-plus AIA Florida members to help assess damages when natural disasters such as Hurricane Charlie strike. At a time when state and local budget cuts mean fewer building inspection officials, assistance from architects is a big asset.

“Disaster response and mitigation is a young and unique aspect of architectural practice,” said Rachel Minnery, AIA, chair of the AIA Disaster Assistance Task Force.  As unfortunate as the events have been, “Japan’s tragedies mean we now have the concerned attention of architectural professions and the public in the United States. We'd like to see AIA components equipped with their own disaster-response committees, get as many architects as possible trained and certified in post-disaster building safety assessments and establish a communications network that includes AIA protocols for disaster response.”

AIA disaster assistance training is based on Safety Assessment Program (SAP) training offered by the California Emergency Management Agency in concert with the AIA California Council. Training certification requirements to participate in post-disaster recovery efforts vary by jurisdiction. In many areas, architects may also earn recognized credentials through the Applied Technology Council (ATC)-20 training, Like the SAP, ATC training provides procedures for making on-the-spot evaluations regarding continued use and occupancy of damaged buildings. Another training program available to architects is the National Incident Management System training provided by FEMA’s Emergency Management Institute.

Although the AIA has been involved with disaster assistance for the past 30 years, the creation of its own training programs and a statewide disaster response network in 2006 has allowed for more proactive and inclusive architect involvement. AIA disaster response teams have embarked on missions to earthquake-ravaged Haiti, post-Katrina New Orleans, post-tsunami Sri Lanka, as well as less-publicized floods, fires, tornadoes, and hurricanes countrywide. The national disaster response network now includes geographically distributed coordinators in Washington, New Mexico, Kansas, Florida, Virginia, California, Rhode Island and Mississippi), as well as state emergency coordinators. The AIA continues to work with states to implement Good Samaritan laws, protecting licensed architects from being held liable for voluntary services provided during a government-declared disaster.

“With our government cutting costs, it is more important than ever that architects are trained and ready as volunteers,” said Terrance J. Brown, FAIA, of Rock Gap Engineering, a Special Advisor to the AIA Disaster Assistance Task Force. “Right after disasters strike, one of the first questions mayors and governors want answered is how much damage there is and if people can go back to their homes. Architects are inherently trained to understand building structures more than many other professionals. We can be good responders to determine readily if buildings are accessible after an event.”

Michael Mahoney, a geophysicist at FEMA’s National Earthquake Hazard Reduction Program, wrote in his recent report, The Japan Earthquake and Tsunami and What They Mean for the U.S., that earthquake damage in Japan was limited in large part because building codes are more restrictive than in the United States, requiring designs that are stronger, and consequently, more expensive. No engineered buildings toppled during the massive 9.0-magnitude earthquake, though hundreds of homes and businesses were washed away by the tsunami. Brown helped author an AIA report on tsunami disaster-mitigation strategies following the 2004 Sri Lanka tsunami that could prove helpful in future Japanese post-tsunami rebuilding.

“Following Japan, North America could be next--anywhere between California and Alaska,” Minnery adds.  “There is a lot of emphasis on rethinking building codes. A majority of buildings in Seattle's downtown core were constructed prior to the significant upgrades of the seismic building code in the mid-90's.  To preserve public safety, Seattle has proposed a policy to seismically retrofit all unreinforced concrete and masonry buildings--some 1,000 buildings.  

“My hope is that every architect takes this training and has an exposure to and an understanding of the value that we can add to our community outside of what we do in our day-to-day jobs.  Our license to practice architecture is a responsibility towards the health, safety and welfare of the built environment. Once you have responded to a disaster, that experience never leaves you.”


Read Bios of the AIA Disaster Assistance Task Force Members

At the Convention: Disaster Assistance and Architecture

WE113 AIA Disaster Assistance Program: A Comprehensive Training Learn to conduct rapid damage assessments of structures after a disaster. Become accredited as a building evaluator in the AIA Disaster Assistance Program.

TH257 Architects: A Resource Before and After a Disaster Understand the process through which architects can get involved in disaster recovery. Learn about design innovations that help buildings withstand disasters.

FR302 Beyond Disaster Mitigation: An AIA Architect in Haiti Follow the work of an AIA/USGBC/AFH Design Fellow involved in the Haiti reconstruction effort, and see how design decisions impact ecology, health, and civic life.

Check out the complete Pre-Convention Guide.


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