How to get involved with disaster assistance

Disaster assistance - AIA Illinois

AIA DAC Chair Rose Grant, AIA (second from left) performs building safety assessments with the AIA Illinois Disaster Response Team after an EF-3 tornado hit Ottawa, Illinois, in February.

At A’17, members of AIA's Disaster Assistance Committee explained how architects can both reduce vulnerabilities and respond after a hazard

Every architect recognizes his or her value in the aftermath of a disaster: helping to rebuild, repair, and reinvigorate a community in need. And every architect wants to design hazard resistant buildings that can withstand potential disasters. What's not always as clear is how to get involved with disaster response organizations, and how to prepare and safeguard your town or city for when a disaster does arise.

At AIA Conference on Architecture 2017 (A'17), members of AIA's Disaster Assistance Committee led a session called "What Architects Need to Know about Disasters and Risk Reduction," aimed at educating architects on their role in each of the four phases of the emergency management cycle. Their message was clear: If architects are ready to get involved, here's how to do so.

"We have such a hopeful opportunity here as architects," said session speaker Kathleen Gordon, Assoc. AIA, executive director of AIA Baton Rouge. "On the front end, we have the knowledge and the expertise to create buildings that will better withstand these disasters. And on the back end, when the disaster happens, we have the problem-solving skills to assist home and business owners in recovery."

The four phases outlined—mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery—largely map to a disaster's time sequence—before, during, after, and anytime. Grasping which actions are most pertinent to each phase or stage is the first step to making a difference in disaster assistance.

Fortune favors the ready

According to session speaker Aaron Bowman, AIA, anyone interested in disaster assistance should consider these four preemptive options:

  • Connect with your local Disaster Assistance Program through state or local AIA chapters; if your area doesn’t have a program, consider creating one by instituting the five components of a state program as found on page 54 of the Disaster Assistance Handbook
  • Develop working relationships with relevant state and community officials
  • Host an AIA Safety Assessment Program training for AIA members, engineers and building officials
  • Build a broad geographic network of trained built environment professionals to serve as volunteers

Not every hazard becomes a disaster, and reducing vulnerabilities while lessening risk can help protect your community from potential damage. When it comes to mitigation, considering building codes and land use is vital. Clients may not realize the complications that could arise from building next to a body of water, or the benefits of designing beyond the code's requirements. It's up to the architect to provide that valuable insight and reinforce the need for well-placed resilient design.

"Building codes are only a minimum requirement," said session speaker Rose Grant, AIA, 2017 chair of the Disaster Assistance Committee, "and sometimes it's quite minimal. There's no focus on protecting property or investment; they're about life safety. Code compliance isn’t a guarantee of post-disaster habitability or occupancy."

What to do during

Once a disaster strikes, it's important to know where and when you can best provide help. Architects and other built environment professionals are typically called in as second responders, when demand for personnel has exceeded the capability of local jurisdictions. Local and state governments have disaster protocols in place to maintain order and ensure resources are sent where they are needed most, meaning an official request for assistance must come from the proper authorities before AIA disaster assistance volunteers can take responsive action.

"In the response phase, the architects' volunteer role is primarily in safety assessments," said session speaker J. Scott Eddy, AIA, "and who better than architects?"

Architects will help determine which homes are safe to return to, getting residents out of shelters and reducing negative post-disaster health impacts. You'll want to make sure all architects involved are properly trained for this particular disaster (most often with AIA’s Safety Assessment Program), and that professional liabilities are covered as a volunteer under the authority.

Liability protection is typically provided through a state’s Good Samaritan Law. Staying up to date on the protection available in your state is always wise; AIA maintains a compendium of the Good Samaritan legislation from state to state.

The aftermath, and beyond

The time after and in between disasters offers an opportunity to consider potential vulnerabilities, update and enforce building codes, and get involved in community planning around resilience. It's also a chance to learn about the potential disasters your area may face; at A'17, Grant noted that not all hazards come in big, bombastic forms.

"What hazard kills the most people in the United States?" she asked, surprising her audience with the answer: "Extreme heat." According to the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, heat actually kills more people than hurricanes, lightning, tornadoes, flood, and earthquakes combined. And as climate change continues to alter the weather, the slow and steady destruction will prove just as deadly as the headline grabbers. In addition, with extreme heat comes drought, wildfires, and sea level rise, all of which can be at least somewhat mitigated through smart, thoughtful design.

A quick response to a disaster can save lives, and learning from disasters is paramount to preventing the next hazard from becoming one. But we will not be able to remove disasters from everyday life, hence the need to increase understanding of retrofit programs, vulnerability assessments, and other proactive endeavors that can lessen the scale and impact of the damage done.

"The good news is that we are losing fewer lives to fires, hurricanes, and floods here in the United States," Grant said. "The bad news is all of those events are increasing in frequency and intensity, threatening entire communities and economies across the globe."

When disasters do strike, architects should know how best they can help. Coordination and connection on a local level, whether through an AIA Disaster Assistance Program or on a community basis, will create the kind of knowledge and resource sharing that protects our built environment and saves lives.

For more on disaster assistance, download the third edition of AIA's Disaster Assistance Handbook.

Steve Cimino is the digital content manager at AIA.

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Disaster assistance - AIA Illinois

AIA Illinois

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