Late in the afternoon of April 27, an unusually powerful storm system swept across west Alabama. It spawned dozens of tornadoes, including one frighteningly massive funnel that touched down at the edge of Tuscaloosa and then made its way resolutely northeast toward downtown and the University of Alabama. Television and radio stations broadcast warnings; sirens wailed; people took shelter.

Architect James E. “Butch” Grimes, AIA, was a few blocks from the center of town working in his office, located in a historic 1820s Greek Revival house, where he and his wife, Amy, live upstairs. She heard the tornado warnings on television and hurried down to tell Butch that the storm looked serious. The couple rounded up more than a dozen people—friends, neighbors, two infants, three dogs, and a cleaning crew working in their house—and made for the basement. There they watched on a television as the storm continued to vector toward them. They could only guess what was happening outside. Then the cable and cellphone service cut off.

Grimes emerged after a half an hour in the basement. Luckily, his immediate neighborhood had escaped the brunt of the storm, but when he later set off on his bicycle to see the destruction elsewhere, he discovered that it started about six or eight blocks from his house.

The tornado, which was nearly a mile wide at its broadest point, had left a sizable trail of destruction, as if a malicious crew of workmen had pounded a swath through the city with sledgehammers. While the storm thankfully missed downtown and the university, it hammered residential neighborhoods—both affluent and poor—along with churches, chain stores, light industrial buildings, offices, and commercial strip malls. Houses with vinyl siding, the carports twisted, looked like they’d been peppered with shotgun blasts from the flying gravel. And those were the lucky ones. Where some homes once stood, only concrete slabs or steps remained. Grimes pedaled down one street looking for his minister’s house, but the neighborhood had been essentially leveled. “I finally got to a place where I thought it was, but all I could smell was natural gas,” Grimes says. (He learned later his minister was fine; he and his family had taken shelter some blocks away at their church.)

The storm killed 47 people in and around Tuscaloosa. An estimated 7,000 buildings were partly or fully damaged by the storm, with property losses from the various tornadoes statewide pegged as high as $1.5 billion. “I have not seen a worse tornado,” Grimes says of the one that struck Tuscaloosa. “It was like a big blender had shredded everything and then dropped it back down. There were just layers of little bits and pieces.”

After a couple of days spent connecting with friends and associates and exploring the city to survey the destruction, Grimes set to work. He’d been preparing for what was to come next since 1979.

Tornadoes form when weather systems collide—cool air at higher altitudes runs atop humid air on the ground, and atmospheric instability results. If the winds are just so, with the top air moving faster than the bottom, a tornado descends from the clouds. In the immediate aftermath of a catastrophic storm, there’s often a threat of parallel instability emerging amid disaster relief efforts, as officials from the federal, state, and local governments come streaming into a disaster zone, followed by insurance adjustors, quick-buck contractors, do-gooders, grandstanders, and shysters. They converge amid chaos, and establish their own sort of microclimate of recovery.

Among those looking to play a constructive and useful role amid the maelstrom: architects. Indeed, in 2005, concerned architects volunteered in droves following Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans—some 600 AIA members signed up to assist in any way they could. Encouraged by the response, the AIA set out establish a more formal system under which architects nationwide could apply their skills in aiding those affected by catastrophes. (The AIA has been involved in disaster relief in one way or another, including assessing damage, creating temporary shelters, and rebuilding post-disaster, in several states since 1972.) The result was the AIA Disaster Assistance Comprehensive Response System (CRS), a way to connect professionals with backgrounds in design, planning, and assessment with local officials in affected communities.

While urban and structural design might first come to mind when conceiving of how architects can be useful in recovery efforts, the profession is also uniquely suited for an essential step before planning and rebuilding—assessing structural damage. Before CRS, the presumption was that architects should only begin to help with assessments after first responders had completed rescue missions, which often unneccesarily delayed rebuilding efforts. But with the new system, architects were encouraged to engage immediately after an event with planners and recovery personnel, thereby becoming immersed in the rebuilding process early on. The assessment project in Tuscaloosa amounted to a sort of full bore test run of the new strategy.

Butch Grimes, an Alabama native and graduate of the architecture and design school at Auburn University in Alabama, was a young architect working in the state’s building commission as an energy coordinator and planner when Hurricane Frederic struck Mobile in 1979. His supervisor stuck his head in his office and told him to pack his bags. He ultimately spent six months in and around Mobile doing disaster assessment. It was the first major disaster in which FEMA, which had been established earlier that year, played a major role. “I would spend a week or two in Mobile, and then drive home to see if I was still married,” Grimes says.

He later left the state job, moved to Tuscaloosa, and launched his own practice. But he maintained an interest in disaster preparedness, helping lobby to have Alabama’s legislature implement a Good Samaritan Law. (Most states already have such a law, which shields volunteers—such as doctors and architects—from lawsuits if they err while engaged in a good faith effort to help. Alabama passed a version in 2006.) Grimes has also been involved in training architects how to best assess damage following a disaster—he’s helped educate about 40 volunteers in post-disaster assessment over the past couple years.

When the tornadoes came this April, the main one was swift, brutal, and had a seemingly deranged sense of humor—among the first buildings it struck were those of the Salvation Army, Red Cross, and the offices of the county emergency-management agency. David Hartin, the Tuscaloosa County emergency-management director, and his staff had to negotiate blocked exits and scramble over debris to escape.

Grimes called up the volunteers he had trained over the years to assess damage; most agreed to help. Among the volunteers who showed up unbidden was Kimberly McMurray, AIA, a Tuscaloosa native and architect then working with the Slam Collaborative, an Atlanta-based firm. She had been commuting home most weekends to Tuscaloosa to be with her husband and family, but after the storm she headed back as quickly as she could and contacted Grimes. “Kim walked in and asked, ‘Is there a job?’ ” Grimes recalls. “And I said, yes, you’re the new coordinator for the Tuscaloosa region.”

Getting teams of qualified people into the field soon after a disaster to offer assessment of structural safety—even while rescue is under way—performs an essential task in ensuring public safety as storm victims return home. Some structures may look safe but aren’t; others might appear worse off than they actually are.

Rapid assessment also helps accelerate recovery, giving local officials information about the need for temporary shelters and help with recovery-planning efforts that they can convey to state and federal officials. A comprehensive inventory of damage also speeds up the process of securing federal disaster funding: Many emergency funds can’t be released until a thorough assessment is completed and recovery plans are drafted.