Gulf Coast Design Studio director, Mississippi AIA discuss lessons from Hurricane Katrina

August 21st, 2015 Comments Off on Gulf Coast Design Studio director, Mississippi AIA discuss lessons from Hurricane Katrina

AIA Architect: Lessons from Katrina

Seven Gulf Coast-area architects speak about what they’ve learned in the decade since the hurricane

By Scott Frank

To coincide with the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, we reached out to a cross-section of architects for their first-hand and varied insights on any positive developments in terms of design approaches, public policy changes, client attitudes, and still-remaining gaps and vulnerabilities for the Gulf Coast region.

Based on what has been learned in the years following Hurricane Katrina, what are the most important considerations for communities in disaster-prone areas?

Mark Ripple, AIA: In New Orleans, we have spent the last century living under the delusional idea that we could keep pumping our city dry, building higher and higher floodwalls, and that ultimately our engineering acumen would keep us safe. We ignored basic principles which were clearly understood by our urban forerunners of the 18th and 19th centuries—that flexible, adaptable design approaches which embrace and engage our environment is the optimum long-term approach.

Allison H. Anderson, FAIA: Communities need to accept that an event is not a once-in-a-lifetime event and plan for the next one—one that will be stronger and more damaging to life and property. If they understood that there was a 10-year timeline, and that they had 10 years to prepare for the next storm, it would have changed the recovery substantially.

David Perkes, AIA: When disasters occur, it is almost automatic that FEMA will expand its flood zones. This catches homeowners off-guard and presents real challenges from insurance and building code standpoints if they decide they want some design elements to better protect their home against future storms. The change in flood zones actually changes the entire notion of being a homeowner, where their residence can go instantly from being an asset to a financial liability.

Ann Somers, AIA: To have a delineated plan in place for evacuation, and a plan in place for those that do not leave in time but need shelter; then have contacts with all the groups that can help after a disaster, so cleanup and getting home- and business-owners back as soon as possible to start re-building. A lot of structures were further damaged following Katrina because they had no cleanup effort until long after the storm.

Judith Kinnard, FAIA: The loss of life and property is typically the result of bad policies and decisions by the public and private sectors. Disaster events are often predictable; they can and must be managed in advance.

Have you noticed any positive changes in design approaches, government agency protocols, and/or public awareness? If so, what are the most compelling?

Steve Maher, AIA: After Katrina, the insurance companies took a big hit and the Louisiana State Legislature had to respond quickly in order to convince insurance companies to stay in the state. TheLouisiana State Uniform Construction Code Council was founded, and [it] established wind-design requirements based on certain areas of the state. These increased wind-design standards have proved to be prudent, as shown by how newer buildings fared in light of hurricanes Gustav [2008] and Isaac [2012].

Perkes: Almost immediately, the [Mississippi] governor’s office changed the policy regarding casinos in Biloxi that had been built and floating in the water. Not only did it get these structures out of the Gulf of Mexico and harm’s way, but they are now far better integrated into the urban fabric and a more natural part of the community. Mississippi is also leading the country with programs through the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety that provides financial incentives to design and build beyond code. A $500 spend when fortifying a roof can result in a 20 percent insurance reduction. At the federal level, the Department of Homeland Security is exploring a “Resilient Star” standard, which would make a big difference to advancing fortified building.

Kinnard: There is a fundamentally different approach to the way we think about the ground and the landscape. Designers are using many creative strategies to link raised building levels to public streets and sidewalks. The city’s longstanding approach to stormwater pumping has, unfortunately, increased the risk of flooding and property damage from land subsidence. Policies are changing, however, and our recently adopted Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance requires most projects to retain a significant quantity of rainfall on-site while including landscape to mitigate the heat-island effect and sheltering pedestrians from the sun.

J. Scott Eddy, AIA: Adaptability, being able to change based on immediate needs or circumstances; and diversity, planning to reduce the risk of loss of any one type of service/utility within a city/town/municipality due to a single event. In Collins, Miss., there were underground gasoline storage tanks. So gas was available, but due to Katrina there was no power to pump it.

Anderson: The level of familiarity with design, a result of charrettes, has given citizens a new language with which to demand change. Although recovery didn’t happen exactly as envisioned, residents understand the value of walkability, mixed uses, historic preservation, and green spaces. Now, because of the strong community engagement, these are the people and groups that are empowered to make things happen.

How have general public and architecture client attitudes to resilient design approaches evolved in recent years?

Anderson: After Katrina, there was so much confusion about the base flood elevations that many people rushed to rebuild at their previous elevation the same footprint they lost. Many of these rapid rebuilders suffered additional damage from Isaac and Gustav. Because of these recent storms, and changes to the flood insurance subsidies, they are dismayed to discover the price tag that accompanies this decision. There will always be the holdouts that say, “I want what I had before the storm,” but we need to share this message: It comes at a higher cost.

Eddy: Based on the impact of Katrina, I’ve seen more client requests for diversity in building systems to increase redundancy, and requests for more proactive planning to address the “what if this or that happens?” Still very much a cost consideration, but it is being talked about.

Ripple: The implementation of resilient practices has been no different. People may not understand how the city works, but we recognize its failures and shortcomings more than ever in the 10 years following the storm. Resilient design has been a way to bridge those shortcomings, by keeping communities in place and intact while preparing them with an appropriate architectural response, to confront a significant disaster or emergency and pick up the pieces thereafter.

If you had a magic wand to make one change from an official policy or regulatory standpoint, what would it be?

Anderson: No “grandfathered” structures: If there have been repetitive losses, people must relocate away from unsafe sites. Allow higher densities on safer ground to receive these housing units.

Maher: We have to make coastal conservation a top priority at the local, state, and especially the federal level. The Gulf Coast is our first line of protection against hurricanes, and we’re losing an area the size of a football field every hour! The coast has to be preserved in order to protect our communities.

Eddy: Within the past few years, Mississippi has adopted a statewide building code, but it contains language which allows municipalities to opt out. I would like to see a mandatory statewide building code as a means of establishing a minimum standard of design and construction regardless of where you are located in the state.

Ripple: To require every Corps of Engineers capital project to include robust involvement by architects. It is quite dismaying to see the massive new flood protection work being executed without any urban design or aesthetic considerations. One need look no further than the Netherlands to see that urban-scaled infrastructure projects can be beautiful as well.

Perkes: What has been frustrating is that if a family wants to relocate to a safer area following a disaster there is not an equitable way for families to be bought out. The FEMA Hazard Mitigation Grant Programs are extremely complicated—it’s like they almost discourage families to seek a relocation buyout option by making the application process so cumbersome. There needs to be some readymade programs that are user-friendly and make it economically feasible for families to have their homes bought out at fair and reasonable prices.Kinnard: I would still like to see higher-density development on higher ground as a prudent strategy, without forcing residents out of the lower areas.Somers: That is easy: a statewide building code.

  • Allison H. Anderson, FAIA, unabridged Architecture, Bay St. Louis, Miss.
  • J. Scott Eddy, AIA, Barlow•Eddy•Jenkins, P.A., Jackson, Miss.
  • Judith Kinnard, FAIA, Professor of Architecture and Harvey-Wadsworth Chair of Landscape Urbanism, Tulane University
  • Steve Maher, AIA, Ritter Maher Architects, Baton Rouge, La.; Member of AIA Strategic Council, Regional Representative, Gulf States
  • David Perkes, AIA, MSU Gulf Coast Community Design Studio, Biloxi, Miss.
  • Mark Ripple, AIA, Eskew+Dumez+Ripple, New Orleans
  • Ann Somers, AIA, Cooke Douglass Farr Lemons, Jackson, Miss. (MSU School of Architecture: BARC Dec1981)

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