How Can Architects Help in Disaster Relief?

Using post-Sandy New York as a case study, C.J. Hughes looks at the extent to which architects can be helpful in the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster.
November 21, 2012, 6am PST | Jessica Hsu
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Thousands of homes in the New York region were destroyed by Hurricane Sandy, but "architects eager to help rebuild have little to do, at least when it comes to anything requiring their professional skills." Even though structural damage assessments will be needed later, the priority in the weeks following Sandy have been clearing debris, delivering food, and helping people. "There is a real need for people on the ground right now, and there will be for months," said John Cary, a design consultant who co-founded the nonprofit Public Architecture and runs the site Public Interest Design. Eric Moed, a Brooklyn designer, and his group People's Relief have been delivering care packages to elderly residents in Coney Island. "I would tell any architect out there to put on some boots, grab a broom, come here, and be ready to walk upstairs," he said. "We should table the golden-ratio discussions for another three to four months."

Before the rebuilding process begins, suggests Thomas Thomas, a founder of the relief group Staten Island Strong, architects can register with the Federal Emergency Management Agency for proper identification. Relief efforts towards long-term rebuilding are being coordinated by organizations like AIA New York, which is offering safety assessments by architects, and Architecture for Humanity, which is collecting donations, offering design help, and training architects for disaster relief. "One potential hitch: Architects aren't legally allowed to perform damage assessments as volunteers," says Hughes. "New York doesn't currently have any "good Samaritan" laws to protect them against any future lawsuits, like many states do." However, Cary hopes that architects and designers will still help with the effort and said, "I would hate to think architects are sitting around because of lack of Good Sam laws."

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Published on Friday, November 16, 2012 in Architizer
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