An Interview with Designing for Disaster Curator

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New Orleans, Louisiana, 2005. Flood waters in New Orleans, located below sea level, were slow to dissipate after levees failed during Hurricane Katrina, causing billions in damages. NOAA Photo Library, National Weather Service Collection, Lieut. Commander Mike Moran, NOAA Corps, NMAO/AOC.

The Designing for Disaster exhibition investigates how we can build communities that are safer and more disaster resilient, through stories, video, objects, and interactive tools from around the nation. National Building Museum Online sat down with Museum curator Chrysanthe Broikos and her team, Christine Canabou and Caitlin Bristol, to hear what they learned while preparing the exhibition.

National Building Museum Online (NBM Online): First of all, what is disaster mitigation?

Disaster mitigation is anything you can do long-term to prevent or minimize the impact of a natural disaster. FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) includes it as one of four components of emergency management: preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation. The goal of Designing for Disaster is to zero in on the crucial roles design, building, and planning can play in disaster mitigation.

NBM Online: Why is this an important topic for the National Building Museum?

This exhibition asks fundamental questions about where and how we build as a society. As we face an increasing number of destructive and deadly natural disasters, we are re-engaging these fundamental questions in very healthy ways. Should we have the right to build exactly what we want, where we want, no matter the risks? Should we give more thought to the long-term viability and protection of the structures and communities we build? In many respects, we are redefining acceptable levels of risk. What we thought was safe in the past is no longer safe enough, and we are now taking steps to increase resiliency in our buildings and communities.

This exhibition also relates to the National Building Museum’s well-established interest in sustainability. Designing for Disaster is, in part, about how we share the planet with each other and with nature. It is a natural progression or logical next step after the exhibitions and programs the Museum has presented over the past decade, such as Green Community and Green House, among others.

NBM Online: Explain the title, Designing for Disaster.

In the past, disaster mitigation largely occurred after a disaster, after some destructive event took place when it was understood that mitigation could lessen the effects next time. With Designing for Disaster, we want to demonstrate how designing resilient structures and communities can and should happen before disaster strikes. Many lessons have been learned from individual events, such as recent destructive storms like Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. These lessons need to be shared with citizens and planners in other communities before the next storm hits to lessen both the human toll and the economic costs.

We consciously chose the phrase “designing for” rather than “designing against” disaster. The “us against nature” philosophy can lead to unforeseen problems. Designing for Disaster focuses on how to work with and understand those powerful forces of nature, in order to best protect our built environment and ourselves.

NBM Online: What will visitors see in Designing for Disaster?

Throughout the exhibition, we present real world objects, video, images, and interactive components to demonstrate the truly vast range of design and building solutions being developed in the field of disaster mitigation. We want to show how these can vary depending on hazard type. For example, in the earthquakes section of the exhibition, you’ll encounter a buckling restrained brace, which is a next-generation bracing system that can absorb destructive energy during a quake. You’ll also find a viscous damper, which is something like a shock absorber.

Other types of disasters require different strategies. The exhibition features a FEMA-specified safe room, built in our galleries with assistance from the International Masonry Institute and the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers. This a prime example of “designing for disaster.” This represents a modern life-saving solution for surviving a tornado or other wind-related disasters that can be built within homes and other structures. FEMA first published specifications for tornado safe rooms in 1998.  Researchers had been studying what could be done to save lives in tornados during the previous decades, and there was a long-held notion that simply positioning oneself underground in cellars was the safest option. But what about in areas where there is soft soil and it is cost prohibitive to build down into the ground? They developed strict criteria for constructing safe rooms, and they are now recognized as “near absolute protection.” So the FEMA safe room shows that careful design and building enables us to proactively protect ourselves from the risks around us.

NBM Online: Where are people most at risk from natural disasters?

One of main messages of this exhibition is that throughout the country we are all at risk from natural disasters, even in typically safer places. Nonetheless, there are certain areas of the country that face higher levels of risk from multiple natural forces. Looking at the list of “Presidential Disaster Declarations,” it may come as no surprise that Florida, Texas, and California top the list. Due to factors including geography and climate, California famously struggles with earthquakes, drought, wildfires, and mudslides. Texas faces a number of disasters including wildfire, tornados, flooding, and hurricanes, with its proximity to the Gulf Coast. Likewise, Florida deals with similar coastal hazards. South Florida also contains a large wilderness area in close proximity to homes and new buildings—this is one factor for an increased risk of wildfire.

Often, even localized natural disasters become truly national events. For one thing, we all pay the costs associated with them via funding for emergency relief efforts and insurance premiums. But these large-scale disasters have a tremendous social cost as well. Thinking of disasters in local terms is not a constructive solution since their effects almost always transcend that categorization.

NBM Online: What are the most effective and affordable mitigation strategies?

The best way to start is to create emergency plans—within a home or for a larger scale community. This is an effective strategy not just for natural disaster mitigation, but can be applicable to all forms of disaster. Creating a plan forces us to think about some simple questions that will arise during a disaster: What do you really need to take with you? Where will you go? How will you communicate with family and neighbors? is a good online resource to get you started with creating a plan and answering these fundamental questions.

In addition to a plan, an actual emergency preparedness kit is another essential strategy. In the conclusion of the exhibition we feature items for an emergency kit and “go bag.” In most cases, people already have these basic items around the house, such as extra batteries and water. Others are more specialized items like a NOAA weather radio and MREs (meals ready to eat). Making the kit ensures that you truly have everything you need.

NBM Online: I know some people might ask, “So why aren’t buildings simply built more resilient to the forces of natural disasters?” Why do you think that is?

In the U.S. we have a long tradition of property rights, and we are very hesitant as a society to place restrictions on that. Building codes have begun to make incremental changes towards resilience, all of which is science-based, and that takes time. We also have an affordable housing crisis, and many worry that more constraints placed on building means costs could increase. Still, there has been a lot of progress toward stronger buildings recently, since the code organizations were consolidated.

It should be noted that this issue is not just at the level of a single home or structure, but also at the community and infrastructure level. Building safer means fundamentally rethinking our relationship with water and land, and then starting to embed resiliency into the community in general. Strength can be woven into the fabric of the community via larger scale emergency plans and systems—not only through meaningful codes enforcements and materials, but also innovative use of media and technology.

NBM Online: What is the biggest risk for those around the Washington, D.C. area?

Fortunately, we have relatively lower risk of natural disasters. Our proximity to the Chesapeake Bay is a factor to consider. Everybody lives near a watershed, and this means there is almost always risk of flooding. Coastal regions are particularly vulnerable, since they are where a watershed meets a much larger mass of water.

NBM Online: Who do you hope visits the show and what do you hope they come away with? 

Truly everyone can benefit from learning about natural disaster mitigation! Whether you live in an apartment or a house, whether you live in a dense city or the countryside, disasters occur everywhere. We hope individuals and families will come away with a sense of empowerment—there are steps you can take to protect your families, friends, neighbors, and property.

Community leaders and planners can gain a great deal by exploring the diverse disasters and solutions covered in the exhibition. Lessons learned from different types of disasters can vary, and they are not always shared across disciplines. Specialists in one disaster area may well find inspiration in the stories of those designing for another.