Nature continues to confound us. The undersea earthquake of December 26, 2004, shook the globe at force 9, triggering waves that slapped the civilized world into submission. When the waters had receded, more than 200,000 persons lay dead and millions throughout 11 countries wandered traumatized and homeless. Entire communities were reduced to soggy ruins or had been washed from the planet; disease lurked in the aftermath. What could we, as architects, do when confronted by this epic disaster?

While it may be difficult advice, architects should not rush to action. That is the message from David Downey, the managing director of the AIA’s Center for Communities by Design, when besieged by questions from architects who want to help. “The majority of people who go might find that they are in the way,” he asserts. Instead, he advises design professionals to channel our compassion into contributions to established organizations already in the field, saving our planning and rebuilding skills for a later day.

Other expert sources reflect his perspective, cognizant that disasters, regardless of scale, follow a pattern that includes three predictable phases—emergency, relief, and recovery. We have only emerged from the emergency itself, as the last survivors have been miraculously plucked from the sea or led to shelter. Relief is pouring in by the millions of dollars, providing water, sanitation, food, vaccinations, and basic household needs (like cooking equipment). The list of experienced agencies is long, including the Red Cross/Red Crescent, Oxfam America, Unicef, Care, and the World Bank.

Of distinct interest to architects, certain organizations specialize in shelter—two in particular: Habitat for Humanity and Architecture for Humanity. Habitat, which has long attracted architects’ interest and activism, has maintained a presence in southern Asia for decades, and will draw on its experience as the largest homebuilder in Sri Lanka outside of the government. Habitat intends to build 20,000 “core houses” there, freeing 100,000 persons from relief camps. Habitat’s ambitious plans throughout the affected countries include building a variety of small, permanent structures. In India, single-room houses will incorporate small, covered outdoor living areas that can be converted into enclosed space as time and money allow. Where Habitat lacks a permanent presence, partnerships with other organizations are already producing houses.

Architecture for Humanity, an admirable organization currently partnering with a Web site called “worldworks,” maintains a much smaller operation. Its immediate intention is to focus on a single affected community in Sri Lanka called Kirinda. Other plans include potential rebuilding of school structures in Indonesia’s Aceh province, where 160,000 students lack facilities.

Already, images in the media have prompted an unprecedented outpouring of help. Although immediate relief is called for, most authorities caution that, without forethought, temporary solutions to the most urgent problems can easily become permanent ones: Ship’s containers, pressed into service as housing, can remain, rust, and accumulate into shantytowns. Towns that move to higher ground may encounter equally vexing natural problems, such as monsoon-provoked mud slides, or social and economic challenges confronting a population that has lost all traditional sources of familial support and income. Such wrenching human need will not fade quietly away; the aftershocks of loss will continue to ripple for at least a decade.

So far, engineers have been recruited to begin the work of assessing infrastructure—the roads, bridges, ports, and water supplies. During the coming months and years, architects and planners can offer the following help to the stricken region: in the near term, damage assessment to structures; for the long term, planning at a variety of scales, from the individual structure to the city.

Closer to home, we can recognize that tsunamis, while daunting and destructive, have struck before, and plan accordingly.

Ask residents of Hilo, Hawaii, a town that lost 61 residents to a tsunami in 1960. The continental U.S. coastline has felt a tsunami’s power in Oregon, where recent scholarship suggests that a cataclysmic earthquake in the year 1700 projected waves as far as Japan. For this continent, as well as for Sumatra or the Andaman Islands, waterfront planning principles and building codes all come into play, and architects should be involved in both.

Compassion is a natural gift, and by channeling our strong desire to reconstitute the torn physical and social fabric, architects have a role to play in mitigating disaster. Rather than purchasing a plane ticket, we suggest traveling electronically: arming ourselves with information before planning our next steps. For today, we can open our hearts, our wallets, and our minds, if not our passports.