Emerging Professionals Fill Critical Gaps In Our Communities

Jun 20, 2019

Disaster Response

The past decade has seen a pattern of storms with increasing severity and increasing financial impacts to communities. Continued population growth and development in vulnerable areas also lead to a greater threat to life safety. In their role as community advocates, architects are frequently leaders of discussions on how to build smarter and how to respond more effectively when disasters occur. Since 1972, the AIA’s Disaster Assistance Program has been equipping architects with the knowledge and skills to mitigate, prepare for, respond to, and recover from a disaster. As the impacts of climate change are increasingly felt across the country, local AIA components are actively developing new programs and seeking to expand legacy programs to address these growing threats. Volunteering after disaster strikes is a meaningful way young architects can apply their skill set to help communities in need.

For AIA South Carolina, the Disaster Assistance Program grew from ad hoc efforts in the wake of Hurricane Hugo in 1989. Hugo was a massive storm that devastated much of the North and South Carolina coast after making landfall just north of Charleston. After the storm, architects and engineers across the state joined in the recovery efforts and established working relationships with the state Emergency Management Division and the American Red Cross. With no major storm impact for several decades, South Carolina’s program was dormant and lost momentum. In 2015, South Carolina was inundated with statewide flooding from the remnants of Hurricane Joaquin. After years of dormancy, AIA SC’s program was unable to quickly or effectively engage in recovery efforts, despite a strong desire to volunteer from members across the state. While the response in South Carolina typically involves coastal storms, architects should be prepared to respond to a wide variety of disasters including tornados, hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, and wildfires. It is also important to remember that architects in affected areas are often unable to respond because they are dealing with damage to their homes or businesses. Thus, FEMA and building officials need to call upon architects from surrounding areas for assistance. Being trained to respond to a wide variety of situations increases your value to all communities, regardless of geographic location.

When establishing a disaster assistance program, it is important to review the requirements that the AIA has established and to review the laws of your state. A state disaster assistance program is typically run by a state chapter, with full-time staff and member volunteers serving in leadership roles. These programs are typically organized in collaboration with local or state emergency management officials to help establish protocols for how architects can participate in the wake of a disaster. Architects are typically not first responders but are part of the “second wave,” working in collaboration with local governments that may be overwhelmed or not have adequate resources to meet the needs of the community. As listed in the AIA Disaster Assistance Handbook, there are five components to a model disaster assistance program. The first step in creating a state disaster assistance program is to determine whether your state has a “Good Samaritan” law and, if so, what level of protection is provided. Many states have liability protection laws for professionals who are volunteering during a crisis. These Good Samaritan laws allow professionals to volunteer more easily and provide communities with access to services in the wake of a disaster. Generally, a Good Samaritan law concludes that “if an architect provides professional services for free to a victim during a declared disaster or state of emergency, at the request of a public official, relating to a building or structure,” the architect is immune from civil damages (including from personal injury, wrongful death, property damage, or other loss) unless the action of the architect involved gross negligence or wanton, willful, or intentional misconduct. Good Samaritan legislation typically provides specific parameters for when the protection is provided and for how long. State program coordinators should carefully review legislation to ensure that adequate protection is provided because not all laws are written equally. In 2012, AIA South Carolina successfully partnered with allied organizations to lobby for Good Samaritan legislation to provide liability protection for volunteers.

The second component is to determine workers’ compensation coverage. If an architect is injured while performing pro bono building assessments, their employer’s insurance policy may not provide coverage. If volunteering through an Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC), workers’ compensation coverage travels with the volunteer. If your state’s AIA disaster assistance program is working with a state or local government, workers’ compensation coverage may be available, but the specifics typically need to be determined through a memorandum of understanding. AIA South Carolina’s Disaster Assistance Program works in partnership with the South Carolina State Guard (SCSG), a defense force with an engineering detachment that the governor deploys to perform post-disaster building safety assessments. AIA SC members typically enlist as volunteers in the “Ready Reserves” and are provided workers’ compensation coverage while deployed on assignment.

The third component is establishing a standard of training for volunteers. AIA disaster assistance volunteers are trained before deploying to the field to perform building safety assessments. Requirements for training will vary between state and local jurisdictions. Volunteers are typically required to be licensed; however, unlicensed professionals may volunteer under the supervision of licensed professionals. There are a number of training courses produced by FEMA, the National Incident Management System (NIMS), the International Code Council, and the California Office of Emergency Services (CalOES) that cover a wide variety of topics including government protocol for disaster response and technical topics such as building assessment. South Carolina, like most jurisdictions, requires volunteers to complete the Safety Assessment Program (SAP) training developed by the CalOES and AIA. SAP training is an “all hazards” course that prepares volunteers to perform building safety assessments. SAP has been used successfully in response to disasters across the country and the world. The one-day training course consists of an overview of the AIA program, a performance of safety evaluations, and tips for working as a volunteer after a disaster, when technical and emotional assistance will be required. Participants are taught how and what to look for and are given step-by-step instructions for filling in assessment forms, including how to record a variety of building damage and circumstances. Local training sessions are often tailored to the type of development, construction, and hazards found in the region. AIA staff are available to help coordinate SAP training locally. AIA South Carolina is fortunate to have a SAP trainer in state and typically organizes training annually to recruit new members and provide a refresher course for others.

The fourth component is portability of licensure. Because architects are licensed by each state, during a large event, the legal limitations on practice can complicate volunteer response efforts. Architects with active licenses in multiple states will probably have an easier time volunteering across state lines but should always check requirements. While the urge to volunteer is commendable and exemplary of the character of AIA members, most state programs will attempt to handle the response with internal resources first and then seek outside assistance if needed. Any response efforts should be coordinated through the local chapter to ensure compliance with response protocol. The fifth and final component is establishing a protocol for activating the volunteer network. It is critical to establish primary and secondary communication plans to ensure that volunteers can be notified and respond in a timely manner when disaster strikes. It is important to build a solid working relationship with local and state emergency management directors because they will be in charge during the disaster response. We recommend an annual review with government officials and partner organizations to examine communication plans and confirm that everyone has current contact information to avoid a disconnect when volunteer resources are needed. It is important to identify multiple communication outlets with geographically diverse members to contact volunteers. During the 2015 flooding in South Carolina, the chapter offices were closed, but the staff was able to communicate with members in other areas of the state that had not been directly affected. Having additional volunteers ready allowed the chapter to continue communicating with its members and Disaster Assistance Committee volunteers.

Following these steps will ensure a robust disaster assistance program, but most volunteers still wonder what to expect when deployed in the field.

Several AIA SC members were called into service by the South Carolina State Guard following the catastrophic flooding of Hurricane Matthew in 2016; among those were Benjamin Ward, AIA, and Gerry Wallace, AIA. Both are members of the AIA Grand Strand Section, which suffered the greatest impact from the storm.

As Gerry recalls, “I was teamed with two engineers to cover the very small town of Sellars. Although not along the river system, Sellars sits in a slight depression and was flooded by rainfall alone. Half the homes in the town had some form of damage. In most cases, we saw delamination of subfloors and the beginning of mold throughout the homes. The worst case I recorded was a home literally breaking in half as it had partially floated off its pier foundation that had been undermined by floodwaters. With nowhere else to go, the family was still staying in the house, with any dry possessions sitting atop furniture.”

Ben was deployed to an area in Marion County that had no building official at the time of the flooding and had to re-deputize a retired building inspector to lead the effort. Ben recalled his experience, saying, “We focused on a road that had homes right along the river. The road was a mixture of older cottages and newer homes. The few homes that had been built to current code and were elevated experienced minimal damage. Unfortunately, most of the older homes were slab on grade or crawlspace-style homes that experienced severe damage from floodwaters. Many of the homes still had people living in them, but without power. One of the things we discovered was that the utility company would not reconnect power until a SAP assessment was done on the home. I think we were able to help several families by getting them on the path to having their power restored.”

One of the toughest parts of performing disaster assessments is dealing with desperate homeowners who are looking to anyone for help. It is often recommended as best practice to have a person who can act as a counselor travel with the assessment team. The SAP training does not prepare you to deal with the often raw emotions that accompany disasters. Gerry summarized his experience this way: “I cannot claim that this work was enjoyable, but I do consider it extremely worthwhile. Our profession has the ability to truly help people post disaster.”

Resilience Committee After statewide storm impacts two years in a row, it was apparent that AIA South Carolina was uniquely positioned to take a leadership role in the state, not only reacting post disaster, but also proactively promoting resilient planning across the state. Founding Chair Aaron Bowman, AIA, laid out the purpose for the AIA SC Resilience Committee in the following mission statement: “The AIA SC Resilience Committee promotes a multi-disciplinary, systems-based design approach to addressing the social, economic and environmental hurdles to achieving sustainable, resilient and adaptable communities. The Committee focuses on topics of disaster assistance, hazard mitigation, climate adaptation and resilience by creating a forum for knowledge sharing and networking among South Carolina Architects.”

Since its inception, the AIA SC Resilience Committee has doubled the number of SAP-trained volunteers in the state and advocated for legislative reform on several key resiliency issues. The committee has also organized two successful Resilience Conferences, attracting national and regional speakers focusing on both pre- and post-disaster topics.

Young architects across the country have a vital role to play in advocating for resilient design in their communities and volunteering to assist in post-disaster recovery. By continuing to build on the legacy of existing AIA programs, the next generation of leaders in the profession can proactively design a more resilient future for us all.