Earlier this year, footage of tornadoes and severe storms ripping through the southern states gripped the nation. As news reports flooded the airwaves, people soon realized these weren’t typical tornadoes. Communities were demolished and many lives were lost. Across Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee and Virginia, storms on April 27 claimed an estimated 300 lives.
Less than one month later, an EF-5 twister tore through Joplin, Mo., flattening everything in its path. Missouri already had been hit by five destructive tornadoes that rolled through St. Louis and its outlying suburbs a month earlier; the most powerful tornado had an EF-4 rating.
The aftermath of these storms has left damage that hasn’t been seen since Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005. The Gulf Coast is still rebuilding and Missouri and the southern states have a similarly long road ahead of them. Since disaster struck, remodelers, builders, architects and manufacturers have banded together to restore the South and rebuild towns from the ground up.
Economic Considerations in Alabama
“It’s kind of scary to think about what has to be done,” says Chris Youngs, CAPS, CGP, vice president of construction at Homewood, Ala.-based BMR Homes Inc. Youngs is focusing his work on residential projects in the Birmingham, Ala., area, which was one of the cities affected by the tornadoes. “I’m probably booked for work all the way through the first of the year.” Despite interest in rebuilding, many communities are tackling the issue of how to rebuild a community that had little economic stability before the tornado and has even less now. “Many families are taking their insurance money and moving on. They see this as their chance to start new and that’s what they’re doing,” Youngs says.
The economic situation is intensified because the loss of houses and businesses means less income for communities from property taxes. In addition, many affected families are underinsured or uninsured. Although the Washington, D.C.-based Federal Emergency Management Agency exists to help families in this situation, the funds uninsured families receive often aren’t sufficient to finance a new house. Because of his location near the Gulf Coast, Youngs remembers those affected by Hurricane Katrina purchased cars and jet skis with the grant money. “They weren’t using it to rebuild because they couldn’t afford to rebuild,” he recalls. “There were no checks and balances and when they received a check, they blew it.”
Kristopher Nikolich, AIA, partner with the Design Initiative, Birmingham, Ala., is donating his time and expertise to rebuilding the Birmingham area through initiatives with his firm as well as with the Birmingham chapter of the Washington-based American Institute of Architects. He echoes Youngs’ economic concerns. “Some neighborhoods didn’t have a strong economic base or may have been declining communities,” he says. “It’s a challenge when you’re presented with how to rebuild or reinvent a declining community. One has to ask if it is sustainable to rebuild a community. You start asking a lot of questions. You have to accept that some homeowners can’t afford to rebuild. How do you rebuild in a neighborhood that was struggling to survive to begin with?”
Although no one wants to be the first to say so, it is possible that some communities may not be rebuilt. Those communities that choose to rebuild could take anywhere from several months to several years, depending on momentum, according to Nikolich. For example, he says, parts of downtown Tuscaloosa, Ala., that are close to the university have a more rapid rebuilding trajectory than some of the outlying suburbs because they have funds and motivation to rebuild quickly. Some residents in the Pleasant Grove community, about 11 miles west of Birmingham, already are rebuilding. Others have yet to start, and still others are forced to abandon their communities. There is no set formula to rebuild after such an unprecedented event.
After the southern tornadoes, Nikolich, his business partner Marshall Anderson, AIA, and Andrew Bryan, an office intern, responded to an almost immediate request from AIA-Birmingham for volunteers to participate in a four-hour ATC-45 training course with other architects, structural engineers and building inspectors, which qualified them to assess damaged property and evaluate whether it was safe to return. The training courses are developed by the Applied Technology Council, Redwood City, Calif., an organization that develops engineering resources to mitigate hazardous effects in the built environment. “This is a unique way we could give,” he says. “It’s one thing to give financially but this was a way we could be directly involved by using our skills and knowledge as design professionals.” While inspecting homes in Tuscaloosa, Nikolich found some houses that appeared to be unharmed but upon closer inspection discovered major structural issues that made the houses uninhabitable. Other structures suffered only superficial damages. Plenty fell in between.
The mayor’s office in Birmingham, in conjunction with AIA-Birmingham, sent a request to the national chapter of AIA for a Regional/Urban Design Assistance Team (R/UDAT) for rebuilding assistance for its Pratt community. R/UDAT is supported and organized by AIA National and comprises individuals across the country who have expertise in planning, design and the economics of rebuilding communities afflicted by disaster. Two members of FEMA working in Pratt have been attending the meetings, as well, so the organizations can work in tandem to ensure they are productive. AIA National, AIA-Birmingham and the city of Birmingham will fund the team. The initial visit with the team leader and administrative staff was completed in August; a design charrette took place a couple weeks later.
R/UDAT will have several challenges, the foremost being how to reconstruct a community in the wake of this type of disaster. Pratt, a primarily African-American community, has a population of about 10,965. It has seen a decline of 12 percent during the past decade. “We’re going to ask [R/UDAT] how to solve this issue in the Pratt community and how to regenerate it,” Nikolich explains. “How do you take the assets and liabilities that are there and work with those? That’s their expertise and responsibility.”
Widespread destruction and community demolishment has raised memories of the EF-5 tornado that ravaged Greensburg, Kan., in 2007. Greensburg made national news when it decided to rebuild using only sustainable practices. Youngs hopes to see similar smart and universal building practices in the rebuilding of the South. “A lot of older individuals live in these southern areas and need universal design in their homes,” he asserts. “They need green building applied to what they’re doing to help them with future costs of operation. If you do simple things to a home through insulation and smart materials, you can save so much in the future.”
Nikolich is unsure whether towns will rebuild as Greensburg was able to. “My understanding is that Greensburg was a really strong community that had the momentum and resources to rebuild,” he says. “You have to figure out how to address each community individually and come up with an appropriate response.”
Nikolich also has seen the question raised of what is an appropriate level to build to so structures can resist forces. Wind speeds in the Alabama tornadoes reached 200 mph. “I walked through Tuscaloosa two weeks [after the tornado] and saw significant buildings reduced to rubble, including their emergency management center,” he remembers. “It’s hard to imagine designing something that can withstand those forces. It is hard to imagine adjusting building codes to do that because the cost burden on the clients would be so high it wouldn’t be practical. You can make sure there are safer areas in buildings for people to get to. I think that’s part of the dialogue that’s going to come out of this.”
Home is Where the Heart Is
Youngs estimates about 95 percent of his current work is a direct result of the tornadoes. He has been applying his Hurricane Katrina disaster-recovery and remodeling skills to the recent devastation in his area.
One of the most significant challenges Youngs has encountered is finding a balance between getting residents home as soon as possible and taking enough time to thoughtfully rebuild structures. Youngs stresses the importance of hiring an engineer to evaluate whether residences are structurally sound and require only cosmetic changes or necessitate almost total rebuilding. “Your home is your base. That’s where you feel safe and where you feel like you’re whole again. Homeowners just want to get it fixed quick, and I think some of them are making bad decisions that will come back and haunt them in a couple of years when their homes start showing cracks from problems that weren’t repaired and were just covered up,” Youngs says.
In Birmingham, Nikolich and Anderson, working with other local architects, are developing prototypical housing plans for some affected communities. “If we’re going to rebuild in the wake of a disaster, how do we use this as an opportunity to build something that’s better? How do we improve upon what was there?” Nikolich asks. “This is a way we can use our expertise to help improve the built environment and hopefully bring some expert advice to the process of rebuilding rather than having it being driven solely by a function of time and cost.”
Despite the best intentions, many communities would define rebuilding as an exercise in patience. Cordova, Ala., 33 miles northwest of Birmingham with a population of about 2,300, for example, is the subject of an urban planning exercise conducted by Cheryl Morgan, who is a professor at Auburn University, Auburn, Ala., and director of the Urban Studio, an outreach program of the College of Architecture, Design and Construction that develops master community plans. As part of a larger project several years ago to revitalize about 40 small towns in Alabama, she and her students had completed a master plan for Cordova, which the town did not implement. After the tornadoes struck, the town asked Morgan to revisit the master plan and amend it to fit Cordova’s current situation. “The dynamics of what has happened have changed some aspects of what Cordova thought their built environment would be,” Nikolich explains. “In the interest of properly planning the community, you’re asking folks to hold off on rebuilding their community when the initial reaction is to rebuild one’s town and move on with life.”
Door and window manufacturer ProVia, Sugarcreek, Ohio, has donated materials and time to the devastation across the nation. In July, 15 employees traveled to Joplin to volunteer for one week. “It was quite a sight to see all the damage there. They said the tornado was a mile wide and ripped through town for 5 miles,” says Joe Klink, director of corporate relations. “Whole neighborhoods were completely blown away. We saw brick homes that were just a pile of bricks.”
ProVia employees devoted much of their time to cleaning up rubble from houses. FEMA had agreed to absorb the cost of removing debris as long as the rubble was brought to the curb by a certain timeframe. Lititz, Pa.-based Mennonite Disaster Services (MDS), which ProVia partnered with in the clean-up and rebuilding effort, prioritized homeowners without insurance and means to remove the heavy debris themselves. “We had a Bobcat and we started hauling, raking and pulling concrete and everything out to the curb by the deadline,” Klink recalls. “When we left the place it didn’t look any different than when we came. The devastation is that widespread. The difference we made was for the individuals whose property we cleared.”
In addition to debris removal, Klink and his team helped construct a building for MDS to use throughout the next several years during the recovery. A previous volunteer group had erected the framing on the 50- by 100-foot structure; the ProVia team attached the walls and metal roof.
Klink talked with many locals and other volunteers. One memorable man had hitchhiked across the country to Joplin to volunteer in recovery. “He’s there with his clothes and staying in churches that’ll put him up and feed him. He’s working there without pay,” Klink says. Homeowners’ stories resounded with Klink, as well. One woman spoke of hiding in her bathtub while the tornado blew through. “She explained in great detail the sounds she heard of her roof being ripped off and the creaking of nails being pulled out. She felt like she was going to die,” he recalls. After the storm passed and she emerged from her bathtub, she realized her bathroom was the only room in the house that hadn’t been completely demolished. “That was a lot of people’s story,” Klink says. “The room they sought shelter in was the only room that wasn’t destroyed.”
Siding manufacturer and distributor Kaycan, Burlington, Vt., also donated exterior building products and tools in the Joplin area. Janis Turner, Kaycan’s U.S. marketing manager, explains that even though Kaycan does not manufacture tools, the tools are necessary for rebuilding. “Our customers need to take care of their families but also want to give back to the community,” she says. “Tools help them get their jobs back and their families fed.” The company also donated clothing, food and other critical items.
In addition, manufacturers are taking part in improving the built environment to be more durable and energy efficient. Kim Hibbs, owner of Chesterfield, Mo.-based Hibbs Homes, has been working with the Donald family since May to rebuild their St. Louis house. Although construction is still in the early stages, the finished structure will be a more efficient and higher-quality residence than before, thanks to several suppliers, including Pevely, Mo.-based American Steel Fabrication Inc., which is donating the steel for the house. Other companies are offering upgraded products for the cost of a lower-quality one. “Anybody who was around on Good Friday remembers the severity of the storms coming through and the damage and devastation. There are a lot of great people in the St. Louis area who are stepping up to help us get this house rebuilt,” Hibbs says. “I’m thrilled that we’re replacing the almost 60-year-old house with one that’s much more efficient. That’s what it’s all about—giving them a much better home.”
Although the devastation spans many states and thousands of people, one value resounds among everyone affected: community. Kaycan’s motto is “Building Lasting Impressions.” “For the first time in several years, we’ve had the opportunity to not only build a lasting impression in vinyl siding and in communities, but we were able to have Kaycan build a lasting impression for our customers in a philanthropic role,” Turner says. “That’s really important in companies today. You need to support someone who has hit hard times. You have to start helping people.”
Nikolich agrees. “Design professionals and our local architecture community want to help and be part of rebuilding,” he says. “This is what we should be doing. I’m sad the tornadoes happened but I’m happy to be part of this process. It’s exciting to see people working together and really helping each other.”
Klink and his colleagues were impressed at the positive attitudes in Joplin. “What really struck me is even two months after the devastation when it seems like they would start to fall into despair, I don’t remember seeing any negative attitudes,” he recalls. “They seemed glad to be alive. The community seems to be pulling together. They realize if they’re going to get back to where they need to be, it’s up to them. They welcomed all the volunteer laborers but the locals aren’t sitting back waiting for volunteers. Everybody is pitching in.”
Stephen A. Tybor III, vice president and business unit manager at Heartland Siding by ProVia, Booneville, Miss., is co-founder and president of Eight Days of Hope and Adopt A Family, charitable organizations that ProVia has worked with to provide financial and material assistance. “As an employee of ProVia, this gets me excited,” Tybor says. “It’s great when you see companies giving back to communities. It’s not always about the bottom line. We live in these communities and if we don’t live there we have cousins that live in those communities. At the end of the day, it’s about doing the right thing.”