Launch Slideshow

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Rapid Response

Rapid Response

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    Asaf Hanuka

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    Asaf Hanuka

    At top, left to right: James E. "Butch" Grimes, Kimberly McMurray, and Alan Boswell

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    Asaf Hanuka

Soon after the storm, word spread across Alabama that more volunteers were needed to assess tornado damage. Ten days after the storm, a one-day training session was held on just 48 hours notice at Tuscaloosa City Hall, with the idea of getting a large cadre into the field as soon as possible, to help the architects, building inspectors, and structural engineers conduct the assessments.

The response was gratifying. “They were lined up out the door,” McMurray says.“We were hoping that we could get 50 people, and then next thing you know it was more than 150,” Grimes says. Volunteers were mostly Alabama architects, but also included architects from neighboring states, as well as Alabama building officials, engineers, and fire and rescue personnel.

“We’re not training taxi drivers,” Grimes says. “These are people who already have professional degrees. We’re not training them to determine if a building is safe or unsafe. What we’re doing to trying to show them how to report it in a uniform manner.” And then there’s the basic safety stuff—such as having sturdy shoes that can withstand scattered nails, bringing plenty of sunscreen, and ensuring that at least one team member with a phone remains outside the building when others go in, in case part of the structure should collapse.

After the one-day Saturday training, everyone took off Sunday—it was Mother’s Day—then the first teams returned to city hall early Monday morning to begin assessments. “After the Saturday training, I was dreading Monday morning,” says Alan Boswell, the chief building official for the city of Tuscaloosa and the man in charge of assembling the damage assessments. “Because I knew all these fellows were going to come here and had never done this before. … To me, adults are a lot like kids—they get eager. It’s ‘let’s go, let’s go!’ ” He recalls that one team scurried out the door before gathering up any of the needed gear. “It wasn’t easy for me because you try to stay in control of everything,” Boswell adds. “But sometimes you just have to let go. I learned that letting things go is sometimes not as bad as it seems.”

Indeed, Boswell’s fears proved unfounded. That week, 10 days after the storm, every day, between a dozen and 15 teams of three to five inspectors each signed in, then picked up identification badges, damage assessment forms to be filled out, and color-coded signs. They received maps generated by city staff that divided Tuscaloosa into three zones and then into smaller quadrants, which were assigned to each team.

Once in the field, the teams would start with an exterior assessment—walking entirely around a damaged structure, and then getting inside if accessible. They spent on average about 20 minutes per building, although some that had been completely obliterated could be documented far more quickly—assuming they could figure out the street address of what amounted to a vacant lot, which often took considerable time. Paper forms were filled out (one for an initial assessment; a more detailed form if the damage was significant). “And we dedicated one member per team who did nothing but GPS entry and take pictures,” McMurray says.

Some of the assessments could be tricky and required a practiced eye. Grimes says that one house looked as if it had escaped major damage—until someone noticed that the curtains had been blown outside the open windows, indicating that winds had come from inside the house. Further inspection revealed that the roof had been blown upward, and then settled back down. The assessment changed. Teams would eventually determine their final assessment and post signs—houses less than half damaged were posted with a green or yellow placard; those with more than half got a red tag.

At the end of the day, assessment teams would converge back at city hall and turn over data for inputting into a Geographic Information System—forms were scanned and photos were uploaded, so the evaluations were available to Boswell and his staff on an almost real-time basis. The inspectors would then take colored markers and head to a large map posted along one wall, and color the lots either red, yellow, or green, indicating the damage level. Day by day, a tricolored visual representation of the depth and breadth of the tornado’s toll began to emerge.

The teams proved efficient and thorough—by Saturday, after six days of work and just over two weeks after the tornado touched down, volunteers had written up and tagged nearly 5,000 structures. “We were through with our data before FEMA had figured out who was going to haul off the garbage,” Grimes says.

While McMurray and Grimes say that the process went smoothly and efficiently, they see room for improvement. In the future, they’d like to capture the GPS data that’s now automatically tagged in most photos taken with cellphones and many cameras, so that it can be automatically integrated into a database to help identify lots where structures were lost. They also identified a few gaps in training—one group of fire inspectors had red-tagged homes because they lacked sprinkler systems, which is in no way a reflection of the structural integrity of the buildings.

And Grimes, McMurray, and Boswell all believed that they could have communicated more effectively with the public about what the house tagging actually meant. The emergency center was flooded with calls after the signs started appearing, and a volunteer had to be assigned to explain that red didn’t mean that homeowners were forbidden from entering their homes, but rather that entering could be unsafe. “People were calling and saying I got a red placard on my house, can I go in it?,” McMurray says. “A lot of people thought we were condemning their house.”

Eventually, the local news did segments on what the tags actually meant, and calls abated. Boswell says that they’ve since thought about changing the wording on the signs, as well as adding a fourth color for the future—an orange sign to indicate damage between half and 80 percent.

All of those involved in the assessments said that the single best way of being useful in such chaotic circumstances is for AIA chapters to develop lasting relationships with local officials well ahead of any catastrophic event. Preparedness doesn’t mean just stockpiling flashlights and canned foods. It also means forging connections before they’re needed—attending professional meetings of building inspectors, for example, or meeting up with key local officials for lunch. Grimes had made an effort to introduce himself to city and emergency officials and explain a bit about the AIA well before the storm. And when a sudden influx of folks clamoring to help suddenly swarmed city hall—FEMA and other federal officials, state workers, nonprofit workers—his face was already familiar, and it allowed Grimes and the architects he was shepherding to make a helpful contribution without adding to the chaos and confusion.

“I think among lessons learned is communicating ahead of time with the key people in the state,” says McMurray, who noted that post-disaster public officials were—at least for now—far more open to learning more about what the AIA can do to help in the future.

Grimes says that preparing and training in advance also ensures a degree of consistency in the assessments, which provides a track record and credibility that will help in the future. “I feel proud about what happened. I thought we did a good job,” he says. “A lot of us got our training in public universities, and it was a chance to give back.”