Less than two years after Hurricane Maria hit the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, the politics behind its recovery and rebuilding efforts have come to the forefront of national news again and again. In recent weeks, two FEMA officials were indicted and arrested for taking bribes, committing fraud, and using federal funds for personal gain. It’s a massive relief, but one that wasn't too surprising to Puerto Ricans who knew the money set aside for post-hurricane recuperation was being mismanaged by the federal government. One Puerto Rican, an internationally-renowned architect who served as a liaison between the private sector and FEMA for the past two years, has been very vocal about this. “I’ve been trying to explain that Puerto Rico has been unfairly cast out as the most corrupt place in the U.S,” said Ricardo Álvarez-Díaz, founder of the San Juan- and Miami-based studio Álvarez-Díaz & Villalón. “And most of the attacks have been labeled towards local people. But this news is a silver lining and basically what I’ve been saying for the last year.” Álvarez-Díaz told AN that only a sliver of the $92 billion promised by President Trump last year has been managed locally. “Some of the people in FEMA were forcing local people to hire companies from the mainland that were not necessarily the right fit for what we are trying to do in our rebuilding," he said. "If you don’t use them they said, they would not refund the investment.” Now that the news is out that ex-FEMA deputy regional administrator Ahsha Tribble had allegedly taken bribes from the Oklahoma City-based energy company contracted to restore the island’s power grid, it’s not crazy to think that other projects there have been subject to corruption as well. Álvarez-Díaz, who has been busy promoting the resiliency of the Puerto Rican people and making the case for more help, said the key to stopping this is three-fold: to get more locally-based architects and companies involved in the rebuilding process “to ensure it’s done in a very localized manner,” encouraging mainland architects to help out, and lastly, educating the next generation of Puerto Rican architects. “We don’t have enough people on this island to do the work that needs to get done,” he said. “In Puerto Rico, there are less than 600 licensed architects out of 3.2 million people, but there are 15,000 licensed engineers. We need more help.” Álvarez-Díaz’s firm practices in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, New York, and Florida. As the founder and co-chair of the local chapter of the Urban Land Institute (ULI), and a board member of both Invest Puerto Rico and the ENLANCE Project Corporation of the Caño Martín Peña, two governor-appointed positions, he’s keenly aware of the island’s poor reputation and is constantly working to change it. His studio recently completed what’s been touted as the most resilient structure in Puerto Rico. Completed this summer, Renaissance Square is a $35.5 million mixed-income affordable housing project located in San Juan’s Gold Mile financial district. Though construction began years ago and was only 80 percent done when Maria hit, not a single window was broken. It was built through a public-private partnership between the Department of Housing, developer McCormack Baron Salazar, Citi Community Development, and Hunt Capital Partners. Of its 140 units, 60 percent were reserved for low-income families and there’s currently a 1,500-person waiting list to get a space. The demand is high. “Materials can be scarce here on the island and because there’s so much construction, the perception of lack creates a false sense of inflation, so people just want to use the cheapest materials instead of the best ones,” said Álvarez-Díaz. “We aim to convince the next group of developers that doing sustainable housing projects like this is actually profitable.” Creating awareness is Álvarez-Díaz’s main mission. That’s why he’s also urging the American Institute of Architects (AIA) to use its influence to spread the knowledge that Puerto Rico is looking for outside assistance. He wants a chunk of next year’s AIA convention to be dedicated to educating architects on working in disaster zones, helping them connect with companies or organizations that need help, or advocating on behalf of equitable recovery efforts. “The AIA traditionally tends to be inside out instead of outside in,” he said. “Many architects aren’t invited to the table where big government decisions are being made and therefore are forced to talk among themselves about how to make things better. Local engineers are very successful in putting the word out there that Puerto Rico needs a lot of licensed engineers, experienced contractors, and developers. The more engineers we bring in and the less the amount of architects we attract, the more likely it is that we will miss an opportunity to create a holistic architectural vision for Puerto Rico.” The AIA already has an initiative set in place like this, its formal Disaster Assistance Program. But the goal of the program, which has certified architects for 47 years, isn’t for professionals to get more paid work, said an AIA spokesperson. Instead, it’s to provide technical expertise on development, planning, and policy, coordinate with local agencies, advocate for Good Samaritan legislation, and train for and share lessons on post-disaster building safety assessments—all things Álvarez-Díaz sees as good, but still not enough. “We need to make sure this isn’t just about disaster recovery,” he said. “That’s the first step out of a three-step process. Once that’s done, we have to plan a whole island for the next 100 years. It’s not every day you can start from absolute scratch and benefit the next four generations of Puerto Ricans. I see the island as a kind of guinea pig for post-disaster development. Other places could one day learn from our successes and failures.”
Posts tagged with "FEMA":
The night before President Donald Trump announced the federal government shutdown, he signed into law a stopgap bill that would reauthorize FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). "Adversarial journalism" outlet The Intercept reported on the bill and its potential connections to the nation's real estate interests. Enacted in 1968, the NFIP was established in order to protect homes built on federally designated floodplains. Getting insurance through the program is a prerequisite for banks in providing mortgages to individuals buying relevant property. When FEMA announced on December 26 that it could not continue work, enter into contracts, or spend federal dollars because of the shutdown, many real estate interest groups got upset about the NFIP interruption.
The Intercept reported the president and Congress essentially forced FEMA to carry on issuing certifications after these parties cried out over the estimated 40,000 coastal home closings that would be lost per month without the service. The National Association of Realtors, among others, made it clear that shuttering this program during the shutdown would be a detrimental loss to the real estate business in the U.S.
Breaking News: NAR Helps Secure FEMA Reversal On New Flood Policies During Shutdown pic.twitter.com/v67dY4eEPk— REALTORS® (@nardotrealtor) December 28, 2018
Amidst the destruction wreaked by Hurricane Michael on the 1,200-person town of Mexico Beach, Florida, one house emerged from the 155-mph winds relatively unscathed. As the New York Times reported, the 3-story house built by Dr. Lebron Lackey and his uncle Russell King was the only one remaining on his beachfront block and one of the few left standing in the flattened landscape of the Florida Panhandle town. The house, ironically dubbed the "Sand Castle" and designed by architect Charles A. Gaskin, was completed just this year. Florida windstorm code for this part of the state requires houses to be built for 120-mph winds, but the Sand Castle was designed for 240 to 250-mph winds. The entire house was built on top of 40-foot-tall pilings to allow for storm surge, and its walls are made of poured concrete reinforced by rebar, with steel cables throughout the structure and extra concrete reinforcing the house's corners. Rather than privilege window views, an expected feature of a vacation home, the number of window openings was limited and the roof overhang was minimized, thus reducing the risk of winds lifting the entire roof off. Lackey told CNN that other features that he and his uncle had originally wanted, like a balcony, were also discouraged by their engineer. In the end, the damage sustained by the house was the loss of an outdoor stair, which, along with the siding covering it, was designed to tear off without harming the rest of the building. The ground floor pavers and entryway features were also ripped away, along with a window and a heating unit, and water damage is evident in the building, according to the house's Facebook page. But, as Lackey and King told the Times, these repairs are estimated to take a month. This is far from the case for the rest of the town, which took the hardest hit from the storm and has lost many of its older structures, built before the 2002 code was put into place. Still, for most of Mexico Beach, a largely working-class community, the cost of hurricane-proofing the way that Lackey and King did would have been prohibitive. The measures implemented in the Sand Castle home double the cost of construction per square foot, according to the architect. The quiet town, which has eschewed major waterfront development and prohibited structures taller than five stories, now faces the hard task of rebuilding or making the painful choice to leave the area entirely. The long road to recovery raises the familiar questions that Hurricanes Andrew, Irma, and Harvey have also provoked in recent years. Those who rebuilt after Irma, for instance, have had a hard time finding enough experienced contractors to rebuild to code and local inspectors to check their work, with many still waiting for FEMA assistance and insurance payouts. With FEMA's budget cut by $10 million and transferred to ICE this summer, the path ahead might be even longer. For architects, their role in designing homes that can withstand extreme weather events is perhaps more urgent than ever. Last year, of the roughly 800,000 single-family homes that were built, only 8 percent had concrete frames, a feature that would help them withstand such weather conditions. In ten years, only about 8,000 homes have met the insurance industry standard for a roof that wouldn't leak or tear off during a hurricane. Homeowners may understand the importance of building resilient homes, but the incentive for developers is much lower. Scaling up the innovations for resilient new construction while keeping them affordable is perhaps the field's greatest challenge.
What if, instead of washing out, a city could float when it floods? "Our system takes the onus of flood protection off the taxpayer and puts it onto the developer, the owner, and the builder. Why is the public subsidizing irresponsible construction in floodplains when there are better ways to build?" asked Greg Henderson, the founder and CEO of Los Gatos, California–based Arx Pax. The company has developed a new technology to boost resiliency in coastal areas and flood zones by building not on land, but over water. The SAFE Building System is a self-adjusting, three-part floating foundation made of precast concrete pontoons that can support not only homes, but towers and city blocks. Far from an engineer's fantasy, the system has precedent in the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge, which carries Seattle drivers across Lake Washington to the suburbs, and the Mega-Float, the world's largest airport over water in Tokyo, Japan. Though the ambitious system is buoyed by Silicon Valley optimism, the design inspiration for the project is humble. Houseboats, like the ones in Mission Bay that Henderson studied in architecture school at UC Berkeley, are impervious to earthquakes and floods—a solid model of how buildings could float above disaster.
Like houseboats, which vary by region and the owner's budget, the SAFE system is replicable but responds to local conditions. At every site, a few feet of water is introduced to float the structures before any floods, like a swimming pool for buildings. The pontoons can be made of myriad materials in response to local conditions; Henderson is adding fly ash and other admixtures to ordinary Portland cement to create pontoons that have a lifespan of hundreds of years. In an explainer video, Arx Pax uses Miami Beach, Florida, as a model to demonstrate how the SAFE system could be implemented.An idea, though, is only as feasible as its permitting. Arx Pax is researching local regulations around the installation and maintenance of in-ground pools for guidance on how to pitch the SAFE system to municipalities. California's Marin County, for example, has rules that govern houseboats, "so there is regulation out there," said Henderson. "We're pushing some envelopes, but we're not doing anything new. We're pulling together existing technologies so it should be easy for people to get behind [the system]." Henderson wants communities—and the federal government—to rethink the reactive approach to disaster planning. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)'s rebuild and retreat model, he said, doesn't work when, by some estimates, sea levels could rise more than six feet by 2100. Building on stilts or doing nothing are less cost-effective than the SAFE system long-term, Arx Pax argues, because more frequent extreme weather events will continue to destroy coastlines and cities on floodplains. Even levees have problems (beyond breaches): Their slopes take up precious real estate, a proposition that may be feasible in some areas but less desirable in places with high land costs. For cities in climate-change denial, there is still time to reconsider approach to hazard mitigation. Right now, Arx Pax is in talks with FEMA to adopt the technology, and the company is working with a few flood-prone U.S. communities that Henderson declined to name. Internationally, Arx Pax is doing a pilot project with Republic of Kiribati (a small, low-lying island nation in the Pacific Ocean) to increase its resiliency.
Today Mayor Bill de Blasio and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) announced that New York City’s flood maps will be revised to add more buildings to high flood risk areas. “We are building a stronger, more resilient city to confront climate change. Our city needs precise flood maps that reflect real risks, both today and years from now—and we have to do that fairly. We will work closely with FEMA to ensure New Yorkers in the floodplain are prepared, and that the tools to make them more resilient, like flood insurance, remain available and affordable. We are grateful to FEMA to agreeing to this partnership,” said Mayor de Blasio, in a statement. The agency's decision comes after the de Blasio administration appealed to FEMA last year to update flood risk calculations for the city and region, a move that added 35,000 buildings to the highest flood risk areas. According to FEMA regional administrator Jerome Hatfield, the region's coastal flood risk maps have not been updated since 1983, a comparatively halcyon time when climate change–intensified superstorms did not threaten to annihilate New York City. FEMA's revised maps, created in association with the New York City Panel on Climate Change, will give more accurate current and future flood data that accounts for global warming. The goal is to give eligible homeowners a better idea of their risk, crucial information in the selection of appropriate flood insurance. FEMA requires mortgage-holding homeowners in the highest risk areas to buy flood insurance; as a result of today's announcement, New Yorkers in the highest-risk flood zones will save millions of dollars in flood insurance premiums. (Those in lower-risk zones are encouraged, but not required, to purchase insurance, too.) To educate its citizens on the dangers of the rising seas, the city has created a comprehensive site for flood risk information, and the city plans to do additional outreach once the new maps go into effect.
Architectural sleight of hand transforms a FEMA safe room from bunker to glass box.Tasked with designing a community center on a shoestring budget, Des Moines–based ASK Studio was unsure how to fit the program to the project's finances. Then an attendee at a community feedback session suggested applying for FEMA funds to build a combination community room and storm shelter. The FEMA tie-in solved the money problem, but it created an aesthetic challenge. The architects had originally diagrammed the community center, sited atop a central knoll in a large park in Urbandale, Iowa, as a connection point that would orient visitors without obstructing views. When the project was redefined as a safe room, said ASK's Brent Schipper, "I just cringed, because how do you have a transparent node that's also a tornado shelter? I thought, 'We're going to make a bunker, and pretend it works as the node of the centerpiece of the park.'" Luckily, Schipper's gut reaction proved wrong. A triumph of architectural sleight of hand, ASK's Giovannetti Community Shelter is built evidence that "welcoming safe room" is not an oxymoron. The modified program in place, the architects began by asking themselves, "How do you achieve transparency when all you have is concrete walls?" said Schipper. They turned first to the roof line, adding a sense of weightlessness with a broad overhang above a picnic area. Though not part of the shelter function—it would likely shear off in the event of a serious storm—the overhang plays an important role in the structure's aesthetic identity. Thanks to the canopy, "there are parts of the building that are light," said Schipper. "You can't tell it was a concrete box." A second gesture further forestalls any temptation to identify Giovannetti Community Shelter with Cold War-era bunker architecture. A glass storefront (again not included in the shelter program) encloses the walkway connecting the shelter room to the rest of the park. "When you use the building, you're always circulating in the corridor, so you're always visually connected to the park," said Schipper. "The glass belies the fact that the room you were just in is a storm shelter." The curtain wall also defines the building's exterior appearance, particularly on the south side. "What you see from the south elevation is a mostly glass structure with these very minimal roof lines," said Schipper. The tornado shelter itself was constructed from a 12-inch-thick precast concrete roof and wall panels. To keep the room from feeling too closed-off, ASK initially sketched in storm doors between the protected space and the glass corridor. Then the architects heard about Insulgard, whose tornado-safe windows had recently received FEMA approval. The architects ditched the door idea and instead installed safety windows (approximately 1 1/2 inches thick) on both the exterior walls and the wall between the shelter and the corridor. "[The design] would not have worked if you were in that room and you never had any glimpses of the outside," said Schipper. "I was amazed by the technology of the storm windows." Though ASK faced several challenges in designing the Giovannetti Community Shelter, none of the firm’s solutions were overly complicated. "In the end, it's a very simple parti," said Schipper. "We were staking all of the drama, all of the messaging, on two moves: the overhang of the roof, and the transparency of the glass facade. When you back away, it's like, 'you only did two things.' But those two things are particularly unique to the fact that it's a tornado shelter."
The New York City Comptroller's office marked the two-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy with a dire report on the expected costs of the next big storm. Based on updated flood insurance maps from FEMA, the report finds that over $129 billion worth of property sits within the city’s 100-year floodplain – an increase of more than 120% from earlier maps. (100-year flood zones cover areas that have a 1% chance of flooding each year.) “In short, FEMA’s revised maps depict a greatly expanded floodplain that places almost three and a half times as many structures in high-risk zones and anticipates greater severity of flooding for those buildings already in the flood zone,” reads the report. “This new landscape holds important implications for resiliency investments, flood insurance, and the role of government in protecting homeowners from the next great storm.” To protect the city, the comptroller suggests significant investments in resiliency projects like HUD’s Rebuild By Design competition. These types of large-scale projects would protect property and, ideally, control flood insurance insurance premiums which are expected to spike when FEMA's proposed maps take effect in 2016. But that will only happen, explains the comptroller, if FEMA becomes a more agile and responsive agency: “FEMA is under no obligation under current rules to regularly review and update premiums despite the fact that the installation of costal protections—including surge barriers, artificial reefs, dunes, jetties, living shorelines, and floodwalls—are proven to help stem the effects of localized flooding and substantially lower flood risk." [h/t Vice]
On the roof of a construction site in Greenpoint, Brooklyn Monday, U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Shaun Donovan announced the release of a new report outlining 69 rebuilding strategies designed to both help Hurricane Sandy–ravaged communities and to serve as a model for coastal regions across the country that are vulnerable to storm surges and rising sea levels. Close to the waterfront, the site overlooked the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant—one of the few sewage treatment facilities to survive Sandy intact. It was a fitting place for Secretary Donovan, who also serves as chair of the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force, to introduce this bundle of new recommendations that address both immediate and long-term needs of coastal communities, including resilient and region-wide approaches to rebuilding and infrastructure investment. A number of the initiatives in the report, such as HUD's "Rebuild by Design" competition, are already underway. "And today, less than a year after the storm, we've already provided help to over 250,000 families, and thousands and thousands of businesses across the region," Secretary Donovan said at the announcement. "FEMA alone has provided more than $12 billion of help. But we are not just focused on speeding relief to families and communities, we're also focused on protecting communities from the risks of a changing climate." While the task force has mapped out a range of far-reaching initiatives, it will refrain from dictating how local communities should use those resources. Secretary Donovan recalled that President Barack Obama told him, "No big foot," in one of their first post-Sandy meetings. "And what he meant by that, this is not about the federal government coming in and telling communities what they should build or how they should build. It is about us supporting local visions," Secretary Donovan continued. The funding, which is tied to different recommendations in the report, will come from the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act (Sandy Supplemental) and will be allocated and managed by various agencies and federal departments. Secretary Donovan said that the next "tranche" will focus primarily on infrastructure and is to be used at the city's discretion. A buyout program will be available to residents who live in coastal areas that are at particularly high risk, but the secretary said that this group makes up a small minority and most waterfront communities will be able to safely rebuild.
For property owners of Hurricane Sandy-ravaged buildings, the road to recovery just got easier. Starting on Monday, the New York City Department of Buildings (DOB) will offer a new program that provides design consultations to property owners and design professionals who want to reconstruct their buildings. Department officials and technical experts will explain the building code and zoning requirements for properties in special flood hazard areas, as indicated on insurance rate maps or on updated Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) maps. According to the announcement from the DOB: “This program is designed to accelerate the approval process for these projects, assist homeowners with their decisions on reconstruction and better ensure that new flood recommendations and standards are incorporated into the design and construction of these affected buildings." The consultations will be held at the Department’s NYC Development Hub at 80 Centre Street in Manhattan. Property owners will sit down with officials and compile a list of recommendations to apply to the construction plans that they intend on submitting to the DOB.
Houses of Worship damaged by Hurricane Sandy were initially excluded from receiving federal aid based on the constitutional separation of church and state. But in an interesting turn of events, the House of Representatives has approved a bill that would provide grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to rebuild synagogues, mosques, and churches. The New York Times reported that FEMA has stipulated that, according to its rules and regulations, it can only allocate federal money to "repair and replace 'furnishings and equipment,'” which puts into question what items “are eligible.” It comes as no surprise that the American Civil Liberties Union and Congressman Jerrold Nadler oppose this legislation, calling it unconstitutional. (Photo: Loozrboy/Flickr)
Now that Congress has passed the $51 billion emergency aid package, Mayor Bloomberg is forging ahead with the recovery plans. The City will set aside $1.77 billion in federal funds dedicated to rebuilding homes, businesses, public housing and infrastructure that were damaged by Hurricane Sandy. Bloomberg did, however, warn that it could likely take a few months for the programs “to be approved and implemented.” Since the storm, the city, in conjunction with FEMA, has helped homeowners in New York through its Rapid Repairs Program. In a press conference last week, Bloomberg announced that the city will create a $350 grant program to help owners of single-family homes rebuild residences that bore the brunt of the storm, and another $250 million dedicated to “enhance the resiliency” of multi-family housing units. New York City’s public housing sustained considerable damage during the storm, which resulted in up to $785 million in damage to 257 buildings in 32 housing developments. NYCHA will receive $120 million in aid to repair and prepare buildings for future storms by taking measures such as purchasing permanent emergency generators. The city will also provide $100 million in grants to over 1,000 businesses affected by the storm. Businesses will be able to obtain loans of up to $150,000 and grants as large as $60,000. An additional $140 million will be spent on efforts to help build infrastructure for utilities and to jumpstart economic activity in the five business zones that are located in vulnerable areas.
In post-Hurricane Sandy New York, it looks like Zone A is expanding, and stretching beyond waterfront properties to encompass buildings farther inland. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) released preliminary new maps on Monday revealing that an additional 35,000 homes and buildings are now listed in flood zones. Business and homeowners included in these new zones will likely see their insurance rates rise. More maps will be published in late February, and the official ones will be available this summer. The New York Times reported that while the maps will not “formally go into effect for two years,” Mayor Bloomberg is getting ready to deliver an executive order that would help rebuild damaged homes that weren't located in the original flood zones but now included in the new FEMA maps. In related Hurricane Sandy news, Congress just passed a $51 billion emergency aid package to help victims in New York, New Jersey, and other states rebuild their homes and businesses.