Hard lessons of disaster and recovery
I spent most of my life inland before moving to Miami Beach in 2003. Where I grew up, the main disaster threats were tornadoes, which are exceptionally violent, sudden, and focused. Within 60 seconds of the warning being issued for the Airport Road tornado November 15, 1989, close to a dozen people had already lost their lives. My parents had just moved out of their Airport Road shop into another one a mile away on that very day, or they would have been two more casualties in that first awful minute as their previous shop was reduced to rubble. Seconds later, it missed their house by less than a quarter mile, and missed our house by about the same distance ten miles later, raining debris down on both our homes. In between, it completely demolished our sons’ school. Wind speeds were estimated at well over 200 mph, but unlike a hurricane where there is time for air pressure to adjust, the sudden sickening air pressure drop in a tornado causes most buildings to be destroyed by exploding from internal pressure.
The first time I recall caring deeply about a place affected by a hurricane was Seaside, Florida, in 1995’s Category 4 Hurricane Opal. It made landfall some distance west of Seaside in Pensacola, but was a huge storm, completely demolishing buildings 20 miles east of Seaside. But at Seaside, the only damage was the loss of the stairs at the dune crossovers. Hurricane experts called it the “Seaside Miracle” and studied it for months. They found two things that made all the difference between Seaside and its destroyed neighbors: while the neighbors built on the dunes, Seaside buildings stayed completely off the dunes and planted local dune plants well-adapted to strengthening the dunes. Also, Seaside built stronger buildings than its neighbors, sinking pilings deeper and generally exceeding building codes a bit instead of just barely meeting codes. Both these measures were done mainly by instinct at Seaside from its founding in 1980 until Opal, but have become resounding themes in buildings that have stood the test of storms in the quarter-century since.
Our first personal experience with a hurricane was Cat 3 Wilma in 2005, but that was two months after the one that forever changed our lives: Katrina. Andrés Duany and I came up with the idea of the Katrina Cottages on the Saturday after the hurricane. Originally conceived as “FEMA trailers with dignity,” they became so much more and have influenced so many things since. Three days before that, Wanda got the call from Michael Barranco that set in motion the Mississippi Renewal Forum. The Forum was the largest planning event in human history, with nearly 200 design professionals in one room of a Gulf Coast casino that survived less damaged than its neighbors. The scope of the Forum was broad, re-planning towns all along the Mississippi coast. As with Dorian, it was clear that Katrina was a storm that had been unthinkable until it actually occurred. Also like Dorian, it raised widespread agreement that the places that were reconstructed must be smarter, stronger, and safer than what was lost. This begins with the urban design, because building in a storm surge zone previously thought unthinkable invites future destruction because the one force of nature stronger than the strongest tornadoes is storm surge. As for the previously unthinkable Katrina, the equally powerful Hurricane Rita showed up on a less-populated stretch of the Louisiana coast just two weeks later.
To be clear, there are ways of building in a storm surge zone, but it cannot be with ordinary construction. I began serving as Town Architect at Beachtown, Galveston, just before Katrina. Beachtown is built outside the 17 foot seawall of Galveston, which was built to that height after the Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900 which remains the deadliest storm in US history. So we elevated the houses on concrete pilings along the beachfront and on wood pilings deeper into the town, reserving the ground level for parking, open verandahs, and swimming pools so the storm surge could blow through and do no damage to the living spaces above. But buildings elevated gracelessly on pilings make the place look like a “stilt city,” so we took great care to make the ground levels appealing. When Hurricane Ike made landfall on Galveston in 2008 with massive storm surges largely responsible for the 113 US deaths, Beachtown performed exactly as designed, with essentially no damage except for the planned blowout of breakaway elements at ground level. Like Seaside 13 years before, Beachtown’s performance was hailed as a miracle by many. Outside of storm surge zones, there are several other ways the design of the urban fabric can help buildings stand strong against the storm. But helping buildings stand strong is only part of the job of the new urban design because the goal shouldn’t be just to help heal the place, but to also help heal the people and their local way of life. Much more on this in a minute.
In the years between Katrina and Ike I was commissioned to write A Living Tradition [Architecture of The Bahamas] by Bahamian developer Orjan Lindroth, Town Founder of Schooner Bay. Ever since my first days working around the Caribbean Rim, I have marveled at how well-calibrated the traditional architecture here is to the regional conditions, climate, and culture on these beautiful shores also known for heat, humidity, and hurricanes. And the wisdom the architecture encapsulated was earned the hard way. In past centuries, if you were lucky enough to survive a storm but your house was unlucky enough not to, when you crawled out of its wreckage and saw a neighbor’s house still standing, you likely said “I’m gonna rebuild like that!” The book was meant to encapsulate that hard-won wisdom into a recipe for building sustainable and resilient buildings again today. After a disaster the magnitude of Dorian, we cannot afford to rebuild with anything less than patterns long proven to work.
The 2017 hurricane season was the worst since the Katrina/Rita year of 2005. Harvey, Irma, Maria, and Nate were so severe that their names have been retired and will never be used again. Irma was the first for which we ever evacuated; on the day we left, it was headed straight for our home packing 185 mph winds. A year later, I was commissioned to study the effects of Irma and the FEMA response in the Florida keys. What I found was striking. Throughout most of the keys north of East Rockland, devastation ranged from serious to extreme. On Big Pine Key, hundreds of homes were lost, many with nothing left but the foundations. But on Cudjoe Key where Irma made landfall, most of the damage was to the landscape, not the buildings. A local resident said “we simply build better here than on most of the other keys.” And several of the patterns of stronger construction they employed were very similar to those in A Living Tradition. Further north, on Key Largo where the right-side destruction of Irma still lay thick all around, I toured one of the Red Cross houses built in the 1930s of construction similar to the original construction of Schooner Bay. There, the storm surge was still several feet high and blew out the first levels of structures all around. But the Red Cross house I studied had no apparent damage at all. And it contained even more long-proven patterns documented in A Living Tradition.
Three weeks before the Irma study trip began, Hurricane Michael slammed the Florida panhandle as only the fourth hurricane to ever make landfall in the US as a Cat 5. Aerial photos of Mexico Beach where the storm roared ashore showed near-complete devastation with one exception: there was one house that looked virtually untouched, while neighbors on all sides had been reduced to rubble. Three weeks later, I met with the Seaside Institute board and noted “FEMA Hacker” Laura Clemons to consider Institute disaster recovery initiatives. While there, we went to Mexico Beach to see what we might learn.
Fortunately, Dr. Lebron Lackey, the co-owner of the “miracle house” was onsite, and gave us a tour and explained what he had done so that his house survived basically unscathed in fields of rubble. What he said was shocking. First, the overall massing and detailing of the house shared many pattens with those in A Living Tradition. Beyond that, he said that no part of the engineering of the house was custom in any way. Everything was straight off the shelf. What he did was to look at what the code required and then upsize everything one or two sizes. So if pilings were required to be 24’ deep, he made them 32’ deep, for example. This raised the cost of the structure about 20-25% but did not affect the cost of the finishes. This is a stunningly simple formula: Build according to A Living Tradition patterns to be naturally stronger, then upsize the code-required structural elements one or two sizes, and you may very well have a house that will emerge strong from a Cat 5 storm, and for not nearly as much additional cost as you might assume.
Beyond the obvious lessons above, there are several more we need to learn. I mentioned helping heal not only the places, but also helping heal the people and the local way of life. The four cornerstones of a resilient local way of life are education, economy, culture, and wellness. In the case of my sons’ school, the tornado damage was narrow enough that theirs was the only school destroyed, so they and their classmates could simply be bused to nearby schools. But for the widespread destruction at Marsh Harbour, the only solution is what is currently being done: move the students to other islands, primarily New Providence, where they can be educated in Nassau schools.
Getting the local economy going as quickly as possible after the storm isn’t usually even on the radar screen of disaster recovery organizations, and in many instances they actually work against local economic recovery. This never happens by ill intent, but rather because the focus is entirely on rebuilding physical infrastructure and buildings. At first, recovery of the local economy seems hopeless because there is no money left in the local economy. In destruction as widespread as at Marsh Harbour, banks are out of commission and most of the cash has literally been sucked out to sea or otherwise lost in the storm. But there are soon disaster workers onsite, and hard-working people get hungry, so start with the most essential thing: food. If rice and beans were imported before the storm, then send rice and beans as part of disaster aid. But if fishing was part of the local economy before, do not send fish because that may cripple the local fishing economy for years, or maybe even permanently if the fishermen have to move away and none take their place. Instead, send boat repairmen and fishing gear so the local fishermen can get back to work as soon as possible. Aid workers have dollars in their pockets, so feeding them is the first way to get money back into the local economy.
Once local food producers have been helped to take the first steps back to production, quickly turn to getting other merchants and craftspeople back in business producing and selling things essential to recovery. Do this with single-crew workplaces, which are shops or workshops that can be run by one crew. For a grocery, that crew is a single grocer, for example. Set up the owner of the corner store before the storm as the person distributing necessities, including toiletries. Set up the owner of the coffee shop doing exactly what they did before, except in much smaller quarters and with more basic equipment that doesn’t need electricity. The coffee shop and others will obviously need tactically-deployed solar hot water. Everything you can do to get familiar faces going again in their familiar roles brings a small but essential thread of normalcy back to a shattered world, which stabilizes the emotional wellness of those who remain.
Cultural recovery should begin right on the heels of the start of economic recovery, therefore much sooner than you might think. It begins with planting the flag. That one act says “this is our homeland, and we’re coming back.” In the new neighborhood center (more on this in a few days), set up a simple wooden platform on one side of the square. Part of the time, it will be used by people making announcements or conducting meetings, but during that one time per day (probably at dinnertime) when everyone in the neighborhood knows they can get a nourishing meal, reserve the platform for anyone remaining who can sing or play. Bring in traditional musical instruments, because the local ones were likely lost in the storm. Traditional local music, combined with traditional local food, begins to build more of those bonds of normalcy that helps shattered people begin to heal.
Finally, when long-term rebuilding begins, remember that this is a crucial point at which a place can easily lose its soul (or essential character, or genius loci, however you want to think of it). Bring in big design/build corporations, and the focus will be entirely on building lots of housing and commercial space with great speed. Doing that guarantees that everything you once loved about the place will be lost, and what gets rebuild might as well be in Orlando, Atlanta, or Dallas. There will be enormous pressure to do this by well-meaning people who say “we need to recover as soon as we can.” But resist this with every fiber of your being, and every ounce of energy you have. If you want the place you rebuild to have any chance of being as beloved as the one you lost, do not go the big corporate route. Put Bahamian people to work building true Bahamian places using storm-strong Bahamian patterns of architecture and urbanism. Do these things, and you have a good chance of preserving the soul of the place. Neglect this, and the soul of the place will be lost.
This post originally appeared on The Original Green blog.