All News

Hard Lessons of Disasters and Recovery

Posted on Dec 23, 2019 in Hurricane , January–February 2020

The home belonging to Lebron Lackey, who spoke at the Seaside Institute’s Transforming Communities symposium in September of 2019, made national news because it withstood Hurricane Michael. Lackey and his uncle built the home to withstand a hurricane in excess of 200 mph. Photo by Beth Carr

Previously posted in The Original Green Blog (


I spent most of my life inland before moving to Miami Beach in 2003. Where I grew up, the main disaster threats were tornadoes, which are exceptionally violent, sudden, and focused. Within 60 seconds of the warning being issued for the Airport Road tornado November 15, 1989, close to a dozen people had already lost their lives. My parents had just moved out of their Airport Road shop into another one a mile away on that very day, or they would have been two more casualties in that first awful minute as their previous shop was reduced to rubble. Seconds later, it missed their house by less than a quarter mile, and missed our house by about the same distance ten miles later, raining debris down on both our homes. In between, it completely demolished our sons’ school. Wind speeds were estimated at well over 200 mph, but unlike a hurricane where there is time for air pressure to adjust, the sudden sickening air pressure drop in a tornado causes most buildings to be destroyed by exploding from internal pressure.

The first time I recall caring deeply about a place affected by a hurricane was Seaside, Florida in 1995’s Category 4 Hurricane Opal. It made landfall some distance west of Seaside in Pensacola, but was a huge storm, completely demolishing buildings 20 miles east of Seaside. But at Seaside, the only damage was the loss of the stairs at the dune crossovers. Hurricane experts called it the “Seaside Miracle” and studied it for months. They found two things that made all the difference between Seaside and its destroyed neighbors: while the neighbors built on the dunes, Seaside buildings stayed completely off the dunes and planted local dune plants well-adapted to strengthening the dunes. Also, Seaside built stronger buildings than its neighbors, sinking pilings deeper and generally exceeding building codes a bit instead of just barely meeting codes. Both these measures were done mainly by instinct at Seaside from its founding in 1980 until Opal, but have become resounding themes in buildings that have stood the test of storms in the quarter-century since.

Our first personal experience with a hurricane was Cat 3 Wilma in 2005, but that was two months after the one that forever changed our lives: Katrina. Andrés Duany and I came up with the idea of the Katrina Cottages on the Saturday after the hurricane. Originally conceived as “FEMA trailers with dignity,” they became so much more and have influenced so many things since. Three days before that, Wanda got the call from Michael Barranco that set in motion the Mississippi Renewal Forum. The Forum was the largest planning event in human history, with nearly 200 design professionals in one room of a Gulf Coast casino that survived less damaged than its neighbors. The scope of the Forum was broad, re-planning towns all along the Mississippi coast. As with Dorian, it was clear that Katrina was a storm that had been unthinkable until it actually occurred. Also like Dorian, it raised widespread agreement that the places that were reconstructed must be smarter, stronger, and safer than what was lost. This begins with the urban design, because building in a storm surge zone previously thought unthinkable invites future destruction because the one force of nature stronger than the strongest tornadoes is storm surge. As for the previously unthinkable Katrina, the equally powerful Hurricane Rita showed up on a less-populated stretch of the Louisiana coast just two weeks later.

To be clear, there are ways of building in a storm surge zone, but it cannot be with ordinary construction. I began serving as Town Architect at Beachtown, Galveston just before Katrina. Beachtown is built outside the 17 foot seawall of Galveston, which was built to that height after the Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900 which remains the deadliest storm in US history. So we elevated the houses on concrete pilings along the beachfront and on wood pilings deeper into the town, reserving the ground level for parking, open verandahs, and swimming pools so the storm surge could blow through and do no damage to the living spaces above. But buildings elevated gracelessly on pilings make the place look like a “stilt city,” so we took great care to make the ground levels appealing. When Hurricane Ike made landfall on Galveston in 2008 with massive storm surges largely responsible for the 113 US deaths, Beachtown performed exactly as designed, with essentially no damage except for the planned blowout of breakaway elements at ground level. Like Seaside 13 years before, Beachtown’s performance was hailed as a miracle by many. Outside of storm surge zones, there are several other ways the design of the urban fabric can help buildings stand strong against the storm. But helping buildings stand strong is only part of the job of the new urban design because the goal shouldn’t be just to help heal the place, but to also help heal the people and their local way of life. Much more on this in a minute.

In the years between Katrina and Ike I was commissioned to write “A Living Tradition [Architecture of The Bahamas]” by Bahamian developer Orjan Lindroth, Town Founder of Schooner Bay. Ever since my first days working around the Caribbean Rim, I have marveled at how well-calibrated the traditional architecture here is to the regional conditions, climate, and culture on these beautiful shores also known for heat, humidity, and hurricanes. And the wisdom the architecture encapsulated was earned the hard way. In past centuries, if you were lucky enough to survive a storm but your house was unlucky enough not to, when you crawled out of its wreckage and saw a neighbor’s house still standing, you likely said “I’m gonna rebuild like that!” The book was meant to encapsulate that hard-won wisdom into a recipe for building sustainable and resilient buildings again today. After a disaster the magnitude of Dorian, we cannot afford to rebuild with anything less than patterns long proven to work.

The 2017 hurricane season was the worst since the Katrina/Rita year of 2005. Harvey, Irma, Maria and Nate were so severe that their names have been retired and will never be used again. Irma was the first for which we ever evacuated; on the day we left, it was headed straight for our home packing 185 mph winds. A year later, I was commissioned to study the effects of Irma and the FEMA response in the Florida keys. c

For the full article, see