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How Texas AIA chapters & cultural institutions fared during Hurricane Harvey

Architecture Region Southwest Subject Urbanism
How Texas AIA chapters & cultural institutions fared during Hurricane Harvey (Petty Officer 1st Class Patrick Kelley/U.S. Coast Guard/ Via Flickr)
How Texas AIA chapters & cultural institutions fared during Hurricane Harvey (Petty Officer 1st Class Patrick Kelley/U.S. Coast Guard/ Via Flickr)

Almost two weeks after Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas as a Category 4 storm, museums, theaters, and local AIA chapters are reporting widely varying degrees of damage.

Some of the best-known museums and other attractions in Houston were relatively unaffected by the rain and flooding that overwhelmed the region, and their collections are secure. Institutions that were mostly spared by the storm include The Menil Collection, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, and the Blaffer Art Museum.

Others weren’t so fortunate.

Close to where the storm first struck on August 25, the Rockport Center for the Arts in Rockport, Texas, was hit hard. “From images I have been provided and third-party accounts, it appears the building has sustained serious external damage,” director Luis Purón said in a statement posted on the institution’s Facebook page shortly after the storm landed. “One image demonstrates that the front porch is completely gone and a roof structure in the front of the building is exposed and thus compromised … We won’t know about internal damage until we are able to re-enter and inspect the building. The timeline for that is uncertain.”

In Houston, Bayou Bend, the house museum of American decorative arts that is part of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, suffered “inundated gardens, flooded outbuildings and significant water in the basement of the main house,” museum director Gary Tinterow reported in an email message to colleagues.  Rienzi, the house museum for European decorative arts, had flooding in its gardens, according to the museum’s website. The collections in both buildings are safe but the structures remain temporarily closed to the public and most of the scheduled programs have been canceled, the website notes.



In Houston’s Theater District, a 17-block area downtown that is home to a variety of arts organizations and sees more than two million visitors a year, many of the performing venues experienced water penetration, including Jones Hall, home of the Houston Symphony, and the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts. Houston’s Alley Theatre “has been devastated” by the hurricane, with its Neuhaus Theatre and Mitchell lobby under 10 feet of water, and is closed for “the foreseeable future,” according to its website. “We are forced to move to other spaces around Houston to produce our shows, though we expect to be back by the holidays,” one message said.

Even the home of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) chapter in Houston was flooded.  AIA Houston had also been renovating a 1906 structure, the B.A. Reisner Building, for Architecture Center Houston, and it took on four feet of water. According to the chapter, the space at 902 Commerce Street was within three weeks of completion and flood mitigation features weren’t fully installed when the storm hit, so the space suffered “almost total devastation.” AIA Houston has launched a $100,000 GoFundMe campaign to help finish construction.

Anecdotal examples fail to convey the widespread scope of the damage. Throughout south Texas, houses, stores, and other commercial buildings were damaged either by winds or flooding or both. NBC called it “the greatest rainfall event in the continental United States,” with almost 52 inches of rain reported in one area outside Houston. More than 40,000 people went to shelters and more than 400,000 have sought federal funding assistance. The economic impact has been estimated at more than $100 billion.

“This is the largest hurricane to hit Texas in close to 20 years,” said Paul Dennehy, president of the Texas Society of Architects. “We’re talking about 50 inches of rain falling in one place. It’s the equivalent of two weeks of flow of the Mississippi River. No infrastructure can withstand that.”

Even though it was eventually downgraded to a tropical storm, Dennehy said, Harvey caused damage in two ways. When it first hit land near Corpus Christi and Rockport, it brought high winds as well as rain, and that alone knocked down trees and destroyed buildings. Then as Harvey became a tropical storm and lingered over Texas, the rain caused massive flooding. The hit-and-miss nature of the damage was due to many factors, from the age and location of buildings to the adequacy of storm drains.  Rural, suburban, and urban areas all were affected.

“All of it is terrible,” Dennehy said. “Houston is getting the focus [of national attention] because it’s an urban area. It’s the fourth largest city in the country. But the damage is widespread. There are other areas that are equally devastated. Rockport. Port Aransas. These are areas of total devastation. They were right at ground zero of the hurricane.”

As the flood waters recede and efforts shift from rescue to recovery, the AIA is playing a major role in disaster assistance. The National Endowment for the Arts and other organizations have become involved as well.

According to public relations manager Matt Tinder, AIA National wants the Texas Society of Architects to take the lead during the initial stages of recovery.  The Texas Society is a statewide AIA organization and oversees 17 chapters around the state.

The AIA’s national office has the ability to bring in experts from around the country through its Disaster Assistance Program, which was established in 1972 to “equip architects with the knowledge and skills to mitigate, prepare for, respond to and recover from a disaster.”  But there is little point in sending teams from other states until the flooded areas dry out more, Tinder said.

For now, “it is being done through the Texas chapter of the AIA,” Tinder said. “There is going to be a larger effort. But there are architects who are already in Texas and prepared.”

Dennehy said it’s appropriate to utilize Texas-based architects first because they are licensed to practice in the state and already familiar with the damaged areas. He said the Texas Society has architects throughout the state who are trained in disaster assistance and has already begun training even more, starting with a session in Austin last Friday.

“We are working to mobilize our members,” Dennehy said. “The Texas chapter has more than 7,000. We have had an outpouring of firms that have asked to help. “

Because of the specialized nature of disaster assistance, the Texas Society wants to be sure participants are properly trained, he added.

“It’s not that people can just come down to help. You have to have training and be qualified.”

Around the country, hundreds of architects and other design professionals and companies have offered to do what they can, said Carl Elefante, the AIA’s 2017 First Vice President and 2018 President Elect, in a posting on Facebook.

“AIA National, the Texas Society of Architects, AIA Houston and hundreds of architects around the country are rallying to make a real difference at this time of great need,” he said.

For cultural organizations such as museums and theaters that suffered damage, the National Endowment for the Arts announced that it is coordinating efforts to provide assistance.

“The NEA expresses its deepest concern and most heartfelt sympathies for the millions of people in Texas and Louisiana affected by Hurricane Harvey,” said agency chair Jane Chu,  in a statement. “We are working to coordinate support for arts organizations in the regions designated a disaster area by FEMA, and we stand ready to support the recovery of the arts and cultural communities in the devastated areas”

The NEA has responded to other national emergencies in the past, such as Hurricane Katrina. In this case, “we are coordinating with the Texas Commission on the Arts and the Division of the Arts in the Louisiana Office of Cultural Development to assess the situation and those arts organizations hardest hit by Hurricane Harvey,” Chu said. “As the current situation stabilizes, the National Endowment for the Arts is prepared to direct additional funds to these state arts agencies for re-granting to affected organizations, as we have done in the past.”

The U. S. General Services Administration has also taken action to aid in relocation and rebuilding efforts. On Friday, officials announced that the department has raised monetary thresholds for certain purchasing and leasing activities. Raising the thresholds, they say, will help contracting officers gain access to the resources they need.

Dennehy, who is based in Fort Worth and heads his own firm there, Dennehy Architects, said Texas architects can benefit from the experience of other states that have been struck by hurricanes and forced to rebuild.

“We are joining the ranks of Florida and New Jersey and New York and Louisiana that have been devastated by these storms,” he said. “We have a lot to learn from them.”

It won’t be a short process, he warned.

“The assessments will go on for months. The recovery efforts will go on for years.”

Dennehy said the Texas Society plans to concentrate its efforts initially on storm-damaged areas in Texas, including Rockport, Houston, Beaumont and Port Arthur. But if a neighboring state needs assistance, he said, it will respond as well.

“Because of the enormity of it, we are focusing on Texas,” he said. But “nobody is going to draw a hard line when it comes to helping. We are going to help each other.” 

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