To call the 2017 hurricane season “devastating” hardly captures the severity of the toll levied upon lives, homes, and infrastructure over the course of a single month. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria were responsible for hundreds of deaths—almost 3,000 in Puerto Rico alone, according to the most recent estimates—and approximately $300 billion in damages last year. Each of these storms brought enough destruction to rank in the five costliest since 1980, and their quick succession compounded the carnage; many hurricane victims had barely recovered from one storm before the next arrived.
Recovery efforts began as soon as the winds subsided and the waters receded, yet, a year later, many displaced residents are still rebuilding, and, in some places, power still a problem. In the immediate aftermath of the 2017 season, Architectural Record contacted architects in each affected region and has followed up with many of the same people a year into the recovery efforts. Rising sea levels and climate change are pushing waterfront communities to reevaluate their hurricane preparedness strategies and push for increased resiliency measures, to make communities better able to withstand whatever weather is in future forecasts.
Landfall: August 25, 2017 (Texas)
Damages: $125 billion
From August 25 to 29, Hurricane Harvey made landfall along the Gulf Coast of Texas, stalling over the southeast part of the state and drenching some areas, including the 627-square-mile city of Houston, with more than 40 inches of rain in less than 48 hours. Harvey submerged roughly 70 percent of Harris County, flooding 154,170 houses there, of which only 36 percent carried flood insurance, according to a final report compiled by the Harris County Flood Control District (HCFCD). Houston is prone to flooding thanks to its low elevation, clay soil, and poor drainage; since the HCFCD’s establishment in 1937, the agency has recorded more than 30 floods and estimates a flood is likely to occur at least every two years.
In the face of the city’s history of flooding, combined with uncertainty about when the next major storm is coming, it might seem easy to concede that some flooding is sure to take place. Yet it was just a few years ago that Houstonians suffered through an extreme drought, recalls architect Catherine Callaway, a senior associate with Kirksey and past president of AIA Houston. In her mind, it’s not just about preparing for floods but becoming generally more resilient and able to adapt to unpredictable shifts in climatic behavior. “All of these things are in our code of ethics, to provide for health, safety, and welfare of the public,” Callaway says. “Harvey has affected architects in our area, reminding us of our obligation and what we’re trained to do.”
AIA Houston’s Disaster Recovery Task Force spent the six months after Harvey assembling a homeowner guide aimed at “building back better” with detachable, nonabsorbent materials that can be easily removed, cleaned, and reinstalled in the event of another flood. In addition to solutions for individual homeowners, Houston is also in the process of exploring larger-scale flood control and storm-water mitigation efforts that would take place over the longer term, voting on a $2.5 billion flood control bond on the one-year anniversary of Harvey's landfall in Texas. “We’re thinking of how they’re doing it in the Netherlands, we’re having the right conversations, and we’re thinking about spending the right kind of money,” says Allyn West, who edits the Houston Chronicle’s “Gray Matters” section. “The city is facing the future and saying, ‘How are we going to continue to exist?’ I think that’s something to be optimistic about.”
Landfall: Sept. 6, 2017 (Barbuda), Sept. 10, 2017 (Florida)
Damages: $50 billion
Hurricane Irma carved a path from west of Africa’s Cape Verde Islands across the Atlantic Ocean and through the Caribbean, making landfall in the Florida Keys on September 10 before sweeping up the state’s Gulf Coast. Thankfully, residents of Southern Florida heeded warnings in advance of Irma’s arrival, and more than 6 million people evacuated. But strong winds and rain downed trees, caused storm surges, and flooded parts of the state as far north as Jacksonville, which experienced one of the worst floods in the city’s 225-year history. Although the cities of Miami and Miami Beach were largely spared from the full force of Irma, architects in both locales see addressing sea-level rise and fortifying against future storms as keys to their continued existence. “If you live in Florida, and have lived here a long time, it’s kind of inevitable that you try to be as prepared as you can,” says Cheryl Jacobs, executive vice president of AIA Miami. “Any coastal area in our country has those same issues.”
Other Irma victims have been less fortunate: the island of Barbuda has been largely abandoned as a result of two successive hurricanes, Irma and Jose, that threatened the island just two days apart. Residents who escaped the brunt of Irma—which wiped out 95 percent of the structures on the island, with winds topping 185 mph when it hit on September 6—were evacuated again to dodge Jose. (Although Jose missed the island, evacuated residents were not permitted to return for another three weeks due to health concerns.) Puerto Rico, too, suffered power and potablewater outages, as well as nearly $1 billion of damages—but this would pale in comparison to the havoc wreaked by Hurricane Maria two weeks later.
Landfall: Sept. 20, 2017 (Puerto Rico)
Fatalities: 1,427 (latest estimate as of press time)
Damages: $125 billion
The damage dealt to Puerto Rico in the one-two punch of Irma and Maria was so extensive that its government estimates recovery may take another decade, according to a report issued to Congress in August. The island’s aging electrical grid, strained by Irma, was nearly obliterated during Maria, leaving 3.4 million inhabitants in the dark for months; though authorities say power has been restored, the system is considered vulnerable. Also ongoing are efforts to assess with any accuracy exactly how many fatalities Maria caused; long-term flooding, combined with lack of potable water and basic sanitation, are among the lingering detrimental effects that have elevated the number of deaths indirectly caused by Maria, especially among weaker segments of the population. The island’s economy and infrastructure, which were already suffering prior to the hurricanes, will require significant reinvestment just to bring baseline services back online.
One of the biggest challenges in Puerto Rico’s recovery is its geographic position as an island territory; Florida and Texas, by contrast, were able to make use of established interstate routes, networks, and supply chains to begin disaster assistance even before their respective storms hit. “Being on an island, it’s easy to see your borders, and it’s also easy to understand that you’re kind of on your own and there’s no way to get immediate help,” says Jonathan Marvel, one of the cofounders of Resilient Power Puerto Rico (RPPR). His team mobilized in the immediate aftermath of last year’s hurricanes to begin installing solar arrays on the roofs of community centers, to power up critical services, and, long-term, create redundancy with the power grid in the event of future outages. “What we’re trying to do is create a shelter-in-place model, using renewable energy, that could be attractive at a global scale for other places,” he says.
Meanwhile, in regions less affected by the storms, architects continue to provide aid in whatever manner they are able. Elizabeth Camargo, who serves as chair of AIA Miami’s Resilience Recovery Task Force, describes how her group plans to work with a contractor in Puerto Rico to build a roof as an educational prototype for rebuilding, using materials and techniques that are familiar and readily available in the Caribbean. “We’ll be videotaping the construction, so that can be used as a teaching tool for other communities to make the process easier and faster for them,” she says.
Though Florida and Puerto Rico are more than a thousand miles apart, both areas face similar issues as the climate continues to change and the ocean that connects them continues to rise; in such crises, these and other threatened waterfront regions will have to rely on each other to find the best ways to stay afloat.
Editor's Note: This story was updated on September 4 to reflect the latest estimates of the number of deaths in Puerto Rico caused by Hurricane Maria. A previous version cited the death toll listed in a July 9 report from the Puerto Rican government.