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The Works

How the U.S. Is Embracing Natural Disasters

After a March 1, 2007 tornado destroyed the high school in Enterprise, Alabama, taking the lives of eight students, state officials signed a law requiring safe rooms in new K-12 schools. (AL.com/Press-Register, Mike Kittrell)

This week, a deadly pair of tornadoes tore through a Nebraska town and another wildfire attacked Southern California. Meanwhile, Oklahoma is reporting a record year for earthquakes, and another hurricane season is unfolding on the East Coast. All this makes it easy to feel like nowhere is safe. A new exhibit at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C, however, hopes to instill some confidence that an aggressive mix of design, policy and planning can make our communities not only safer, but also more disaster-resilient.

“Designing for Disaster” covers a wide spectrum of U.S. disaster mitigation strategies spanning the last century, and the exhibit is organized by the natural forces posing the challenge — earth, air, fire and water. All four sections feature numerous deep-dives into impressive design and engineering solutions. In the “earth” section, for example, there’s the story of how UC Berkeley’s $320 million “seismic upgrade” for its California Memorial Stadium included staircase joints that can expand to accommodate quake movements. Over in the “air” room, an interactive hands-on version of Florida International University’s Wall of Wind reveals how simulating Category 5 hurricanes can help determine best-performing roof designs.

The International Hurricane Research Center in Miami, Florida, features 12, six-foot tall fans — a virtual Wall of Wind — capable of simulating Category 5 hurricanes to test the performance of structures and materials. (Photo: Wall of Wind, Florida International University)

The exhibit’s hands-on version of the Wall of Wind allows visitors to test how different roof types stand up to high wind. (Photo: National Building Museum)

Much of the exhibit focuses on what average citizens can do to prepare — family emergency plans, “go-bags” with essentials like water and meals ready to eat — but the exhibit also highlights ideas for community-based approaches such as establishing a disaster prep committee in a condo building or organizing events like the Great California Shakeout earthquake drills. In Santa Fe, New Mexico, for example, residents agreed to pay an extra forest thinning maintenance fee on their water bills to prevent wildfire sediment and debris from destroying their local water supply for years. The cost comparison is $5 million paid in fees over the next 20 years versus the $100 million needed to rehabilitate the area after a large wildfire. According to exhibit curator Chrysanthe Broikos, this idea is also under consideration in Denver and a number of western cities where water is more expensive and risk for wildfire is much higher.

Examined through the lens of planning and policy, disaster prep progress has been steady the last few decades, primarily through new land use regulations and modified building codes. A wall of “Mitigation Milestones” at the start of each section of the exhibit highlights big steps states and municipalities have taken in response to major devastations. Hurricane Andrew in 1992 inspired an updated South Florida Building Code requiring impact-resistant glass. After thousands of homes were lost in San Diego County’s cedar fire in 2003, new law required homeowners to maintain 100 feet of defensible space around their houses.

Yet overall, the exhibit suggests that the strong threat of natural disasters means we are still only getting started. “Resiliency” is just coming to the forefront now, says Broikos. And it’s building the momentum to become a much more widespread movement. One visible sign is Rebuild by Design. Conceived after Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the federally funded competition asked designers and researchers to create innovative community- and policy-based solutions for increasing resiliency. Earlier this month, six winners were announced.

One winning idea, SCAPE/Landscape Architecture design studio’s ecological approach to defending against floods, erosion and wave damage, was featured prominently in the exhibit’s “water” section.

According to Broikos, the museum will actually tweak the exhibit to include even more of the Rebuild by Design winners. Given how frequently new resiliency-focused projects are popping up, especially in the area of waterfront landscaping, Broikos thinks a follow-up show in the next decade will have no problem incorporating completely new approaches.

The “Designing for Disaster” exhibit runs at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. through August 2, 2015.

The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

Tags: washington, d.c.resilient citiesdisaster planningmuseumsrebuild by design