Confronting our natural disaster risk at the National Building Museum


Destroyed cars are seen in front of Enterprise High School is shown Friday, March 2, 2007, in Enterprise, Ala. Eight students died when a tornado struck the high school. (AP Photo/Press-Register, Mike Kittrell)

The insurance losses from natural disasters in the U.S. have more than doubled in each of the last three decades. More people and property than ever lie in harm’s way.

The National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. believes the time is right to raise awareness of the nation’s exposure to natural disasters and, crucially, inform what we can do to be better prepared.  This Sunday, it opens its “Designing for Disaster” exhibit which showcases the actions communities are taking to lower their disaster risk – from better planning to better building.


National Building Museum

“We hope to demonstrate that design can save lives and property in the face of destructive natural disasters,” said Chase Rynd, executive director of the National Building Museum. “We believe that the museum has an important role to play in educating the public about innovations in building and city planning that make for stronger and safer communities.”

The exhibit explores our vulnerability to four forces of nature – earth (earthquakes and seismic events), air (wind), fire, and water (floods and storm surges).  Multimedia case studies of past disasters emanating from these forces bring their devastation to life.

Actual artifacts from past disasters greet visitors in the exhibit’s first room. For example, on display are stone fragments from the earthquake-damaged National Cathedral and a door bearing the markings of the search and rescue effort from the Broadmoor neighborhood of New Orleans following Katrina.


Post Katrina

But the exhibit’s most compelling demonstrations  show how innovative engineering solutions can reduce the impact of disasters and, in fact, already are.

A scaled-down wall of wind, a replica of the full-size version at Florida International University (which can generate category 5 hurricane winds), lets visitors test how different roof shapes and orientations hold up to a blast of wind.


Wall of wind at Florida International University

In the same room, visitors see the structural benefits of a “continuous load path”  which effectively creates a chain within a home that holds it together if it is buffeted by hurricane-force winds and debris. Exhibit curator Chrysanthe Broikos said most homes are not built to current code which require this piece of engineering but they can be retrofitted, for example, when a roof is replaced.

“Building consumer demand for better building, that’s what these exhibits are about,” Broikos said.

In the room next to the wall of wind, the exhibit features a partially deconstructed FEMA-specified safe room that can withstand violent tornadic winds to over 250 mph. Such safe rooms can be installed in pantries, laundry rooms, utility rooms – any room that is centrally located and away from windows.  “They save lives,” Broikos said.


Safe room exhibit at National Building Museum Designing for Disaster Exhibit

In the next room, pressing a button engages expanding stairs, a demo of the expansion joints installed at University of California-Berkeley’s Memorial Stadium that adapt in the event of an earthquake.

Subsequent rooms have interactive displays and demonstrations on natural disasters associated with fire and water.

Three-quarters of the U.S. is at risk of at least one natural disaster and climate change is predicted to increase the intensity of many disasters in coming decades.

“This is the most important exhibit I’ve worked on and I’ve been here 15 years,” Broikos said.  She hopes the exhibit will help motivate visitors to: “Accept and internalize risk on a personal level. That will make you change and do something better.”

(The Washington Post is a media partner of the Designing for Disaster exhibit)

Related link: Exhibit’s “MitigationNation blog”

Jason is currently the Washington Post’s weather editor. A native Washingtonian, Jason has been a weather enthusiast since age 10.
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