Second, amend building codes to ensure that buildings in coastal areas suffer minimal damage when subjected to hurricane-force winds, storm surges and severe flooding. This would increase construction costs but again would be less expensive than spending billions on elaborate systems to keep nature at bay.
This latter strategy is suggested by nightly news images of wood-frame houses thoroughly torn apart because of Sandy. Roof trusses, floor joists, siding and sheathing, exterior walls and interior partitions have been reduced to giant piles of debris composed of deformed and fractured plywood panels, broken and splintered two-by-fours, shredded wood trim and heaps of crumbled masonry.
These images were reminders about how often Europeans have expressed to me their puzzlement about what they perceive to be flimsy, conventional American home construction. Many old and new buildings in Europe, large and small, are built more robustly using structural materials intended to last for centuries.
Fortunately, in many places in the United States, building codes have been beefed up to make sure that new or rebuilt buildings are more robust to better cope with nature’s unwanted surprises.
For example, in Vero Beach, Fla., I designed a four-story luxury apartment building near the ocean for which the then updated code required habitable spaces and all electro-mechanical equipment to be above expected flood elevation. Only parking was at ground level. To make the building transparent to floodwater, hydrostatic and hydrodynamic vents had to be inserted in all masonry walls every few feet just above grade to allow water to freely pass through the building. And although only four stories high, the building’s structural skeleton was reinforced concrete and steel, not wood. Moreover, all structural connections, especially those holding the roof down, had to be hurricane-proof.
East coast states and their citizens should prudently heed Sandy’s cruel lessons. They should take steps soon to prevent devastation, comparable to what Sandy wrought, when the next perfect storm materializes.
Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.