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Katrina Has Devastating Impact on Architecture

Hurricane Katrina has not only wreaked untold havoc on New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, injuring and killing perhaps thousands, displacing many more, and crippling local economies; but it appears to have washed away much of the area’s architecture, from rich historic buildings to everyday homes.

Damage figures are still in their earliest stages, but some insurance estimators have calculated that claims may reach $25 billion. Due to floodwaters, up to 80% of New Orleans is underwater, while government estimates say that tidal surges and hurricane-force winds have destroyed huge sections of coastal Mississippi towns like Biloxi and Gulfport.

“This hurricane has caused catastrophic devastation across areas of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama,” said Michael D. Brown, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

The toll on significant architecture appears high. John Hildreth, director of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s southern office, has received preliminary reports from around the region, although he says that full reports on New Orleans won’t be available until floodwaters are lowered, which could take up to a month. He notes that New Orleans’ French Quarter and Garden Districts, on higher ground, appear to be relatively in tact, but historic neighborhoods like the 9th Ward, Midtown, and the Treme were all badly hit. These neighborhoods include some multi-story French colonial buildings, but many more single story, wood-frame buildings from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Also badly hit was the Louisiana State Museum in Jackson Square. “New Orleans is so rich with historic places,” says Hildreth. “It’s always to me amazing how extensive the historic resources were. Even in neighborhoods that tourists have never heard of.”


Hildreth adds that the historic districts of several communities on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, including Bay St. Louis and Pass Christian, have been devastated. Homes and commercial establishments’ styles include Greek Revival, Victorian, Queen Anne, and many vernacular styles. Damaged icons in the area include Beauvouir, Jefferson Davis’s home in Biloxi, which has seen significant damage, but is still standing. It has been reported that Mississippi Senator Trent Lott’s beach home, in Pascagoula, has been destroyed.

The National Trust, the World Monuments Fund, and a slew of other organizations, including the American Institute of Architects (AIA), and FEMA, are preparing assessment teams to head to the area after initial relief efforts are completed.

The rebuilding effort for such structures will be challenging, especially considering the rush to build quickly, says Hildreth. “The lessons that we’ve learned from other hurricanes and recovery efforts is that the things that were important before the storm need to be important after the storm. The city that is reborn is one that still has its heritage and culture.” Hildreth notes that the Trust will likely make grants available to supplement its historic building tax credits.

Still the effort to rebuild well-regarded buildings pales in comparison to what is faced with the thousands of other damaged or leveled structures in the area.

“Most of the stuff that’s on the news it’s as bad or worse than what even the news is showing,” says Jim West, Dean of the School of Architecture at Mississippi State University, in Starkville, well north of the coastal areas. He’s heard word from students with families in Gulfport and surrounding towns that any buildings within about a quarter-mile of the beach are almost universally gone. He wonders if horrible damage to local casinos, like Harrah’s and Hard Rock, may have been worsened by state laws requiring that they be built on the river. He also believes that newly-revitalized towns like Ocean Springs, which have seen their urban fabric improve significantly in recent years, are virtually destroyed.

While organizations like the Red Cross and FEMA are leading the initial emergency response, organizations like the AIA, The Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Defense, Architecture for Humanity (AFH), and Habitat for Humanity are assembling reconstruction experts for the task.

The AIA’s David Downey, Managing Director of AIA’s Center for Communities by Design, notes that the organization’s efforts are still in their very early stages, and that any focus now should be centered on the Red Cross and Salvation Army. But eventually, “we’d like to broaden our work beyond damage assessment and recovery relief,” he says. “Downey speaks of creating temporary work spaces, helping with relocation, housing reconstruction, and “helping people get back on their feet.” The AIA will also help get local architects back and running, even providing them with the homes of fellow architects to stay. Downey adds that the AIA has located local architects through digital mapping. As of now, no AIA members have been killed or seriously injured to his knowledge.

“Members in the area are still quite shaken up,” says Downey.

AFH, which seeks architectural solutions to humanitarian crisis and brings design services to communities in need, has already raised $10,000 for the rebuilding effort. The organization plans to offer design services down the line, but “I imagine it will take us months even to identify the kinds of projects we can work on,” says AFP’s Kate Stohr. Rebuilding, she notes, should be done carefully, even if people are in a hurry to get homes up. “The question is what do we leave for future generations? We don’t want to build shoddy housing that won’t gain in value or allow people to get out of poverty.”

And while flood management systems have been under scrutiny in the past few days, another question is whether buildings could be made in a way to withstand such natural disasters. “I wouldn’t be surprised if these states didn’t take significant look at building codes,” says West. One idea is to make houses with lower sections that break away in intense weather, such as are often mandated in Florida. Still, he says, there has to be a balance.“You could make everybody live in a silo, but I don’t think we’d be very happy.”

Sam Lubell


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