Designing for resiliency: Lessons learned from Hurricane Florence along the Carolina Coast

Few of us, however, have ever witnessed anything like 2018’s Hurricane Florence.

Those of us who live in coastal areas like my hometown of Wilmington, NC are accustomed to weathering hurricanes. We stock up on batteries, board up windows, and make sure we have enough nonperishable food to last a couple of days if the power goes out. We’ll swap family stories with those who remember Hurricanes Hazel or Fran or Floyd, and maybe make coffee on the grill to share with our neighbors.

Few of us, however, have ever witnessed anything like 2018’s Hurricane Florence. Instead of slamming into the coast and blowing through in a torrent, this storm hovered over the warm September ocean waters for a seemingly interminable stretch of time. Florence appeared to grind to a halt as it hovered over the coast, funneling unthinkable amounts of water into the storm and back down onto the saturated land as rainfall. The storm was massive in size, punishing in duration, and devastating to cities across the region. The coast took a direct hit with historic flooding in New Bern, 34” of rain dumped on Swansboro, and destructive flooding as far inland as the Triangle region.

We’d love for hurricanes of this destructive power to be so rare as to be shocking; however, we only have to look back to Hurricanes Harvey and Maria in 2017, and Hurricane Matthew in 2016, for similar examples. According to climate scientists at NOAA, as the climate continues to warm, we can expect the trend of larger, slower, more powerful, and more destructive hurricanes to continue.  Wind will still be a powerful factor, but the more dangerous impacts will likely come from slower-moving systems which dump unprecedented amounts of water.

HOW CAN ARCHITECTS HELP IN THE AFTERMATH?

As an architect in Wilmington, I will long remember Hurricane Florence for the multisensory experiences of things gone wrong. The sound of aggressive roof leaks. The smell of wet sheetrock. The uncomfortable feeling of stepping through puddles inside a building, where puddles should not be. The desperate expression of owners trying to restore normalcy after the roof blows off. One public building owner called me in a panic with 6’ of water in his basement and asked, “You are an architect- what should I do?” Though I was secretly relieved that my firm hadn’t designed the building, I was humbled by the trust he put in the profession of architecture in the face of such a profound and catastrophic event.

WHAT COULD BE DONE TO PREVENT DAMAGE?

Resilient design principles will be critical in preparing our communities for future storms. Architects are familiar with the advice “think like a raindrop.” We do, but we must also think like a Category 5 hurricane. Designing our buildings to withstand severe weather is far less expensive than repairing avoidable damage; remember that a $500 roof leak exits a building as a $500,000 mold & mildew abatement contract. An investment in civil engineering and durable construction can reap significant dividends by minimizing repair costs and days a building is uninhabitable after a storm.

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