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Can Better Design Save The Day In Future Natural Disasters?

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After a March 1, 2007 tornado destroyed the high school in Enterprise, Alabama, taking the lives of eight students, state officials signed a law requiring safe rooms in new K-12 schools.
AL.com/Press-Register, Mike Kittrell
After a March 1, 2007 tornado destroyed the high school in Enterprise, Alabama, taking the lives of eight students, state officials signed a law requiring safe rooms in new K-12 schools.

Imagine your car’s suspension system. It’s basically a shock absorber mounted inside a big metal coil and attached to the wheel to give you a smooth ride. If you didn't have shocks, a short drive would rattle the fillings right out of your mouth.

Now imagine a shock absorber that’s 10 times the size of the one in your car. But it’s not for a vehicle; it’s for a stadium. Specifically, the recently renovated California Memorial Stadium in Berkeley, which inconveniently lies on a seismic fault line.

“This type of damper is actually connecting the concrete core that’s supporting the press box at the stadium to the seating bowl,” said Chrysanthe Broikos, the curator of a new show called Designing for Disaster at the National Building Museum. “But those two things are actually not connected again so they can move independently.”

In essence, the stadium’s press box hovers over the seating area, but isn't actually attached to it. That segmented design is critical to withstanding damage from future earthquakes, Broikos said.

Minimizing damage from natural disasters

Scientists say the number of devastating weather events — hurricanes, tornadoes, floods — is on the rise. And those events seem to be growing ever more intense. The museum’s show looks at how we can prevent, reduce the impact of and prepare better for natural disasters.

The show is timely. In 1953, there were 13 federal Disaster Declarations issued. A half a century later and that number had quadrupled. Last year, FEMA issued more than one major disaster declaration a week.

The building museum’s exhibit examines what can be done about this from a design perspective.

“Ever since the 1990s when there were a lot of disasters, the thinking has begun to shift in that we really need to start working with nature and understanding nature better instead of always trying to fight her,” Broikos said. “So most of the examples in the exhibition are in one way or another a reflection of that.”

The show begins in a room filled with artifacts from previous disasters — chunks of the National Cathedral that fell off during the 2011 earthquake; a slice of boardwalk shredded by Superstorm Sandy; and a spray-painted door from New Orleans that was kicked down after Hurricane Katrina.

The artifacts are reminders of nature’s blind fury. But the exhibit is all doom and gloom. In addition to showing what humans are up against, Broikos wanted to show the changes being made in advance of future disasters.

Humans adapt to challenges

In the earth gallery, visitors can see the giant shock absorber from the Berkeley stadium. In the water gallery, there are oyster shell barriers — basically big blocks made from the bivalves’ homes — meant to prevent flood surges and help rebuild marine ecosystems. Moving into the wind gallery, the exhibit gets interactive with a model of the Wall of Wind, a hurricane simulator at Florida International University.

Broikos explained the model as she set up two little houses in front of a series of tiny fans. One house had a flat roof, while the other had a hipped roof, or a roof where all the sides slope downwards to the walls.

“So what this does is show even something as simple as the shape of your roof can actually have a big impact on whether the structural integrity of your home,” Broikos said.

Then she pushed a button that turned on the tiny fans, which simulated a Category 3 hurricane. In just a second or two, the flat roof flew off of the model.

“The hipped roof performed much better. It turns out that a shape like that that equalizes the pressure actually does a better job,” she said.

Also in the wind gallery is a structure that Midwesterners know all too well — the safe room. The museum’s safe room — meant to provide shelter during an extreme wind event like a tornado — looks a bit like a fallout shelter, with concrete block walls reinforced with steel rebar.

There’s also a trove of nonperishable food items, a first aid kit, a cell phone charger and a radio to keep in touch with the outside world.

Broikos emphasizes that you don't need to reinforce your house with giant x-braces or build a bombproof safe room in your cellar in order to be prepared for natural disasters.

“There’s just this incredible human capacity for inaction. And the fact is if you do just little things, it can make a big difference,” she said. “So that’s one of the underlying goals of the exhibition is to show you can do something.”

Music: "Hurricane Season" by Trombone Shorty from Backatown

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