Disaster Recovery: Lessons Learned

When Hurricane Ike slammed into the upper Texas coast in September 2008, the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) in Galveston was hit hard. Almost 200 University buildings were compromised by the storm. SHW Group, one of the nation’s leading educational architecture and engineering firms, was brought on as one of more than eight firms to lead renovation efforts for the academic and business buildings.

Utilizing funding primarily from the FEMA Public Assistance Grant Program, UTMB’s goal throughout the renovation and restoration process, slated for completion in summer 2013, has been to “prepare for the next flood.” After assessing more than 600,000 sq. ft. and undertaking more than 70 design projects on nearly 50 buildings, SHW Group has gathered the information necessary to restore facilities to pre-disaster functionality, upgrade those buildings to current codes and standards, maximize funding from FEMA, and better prepare the campus for the next “big one.”

Plan and Prepare
Preparation is one of the most important components to successfully recover from a natural disaster. As part of this preparation, colleges and universities should document the current state of all significant fixed and moveable assets prior to a disaster. These assets include research equipment, food service equipment, and all major mechanical and electrical equipment. Photographic documentation of the “before” state of buildings and assets is crucial to maximizing funding, as FEMA often needs evidence of the existing conditions when assessing the post-disaster damage.

Assessing the Damage

The scene immediately following a natural disaster can be overwhelming, but certain steps can minimize further damage to buildings and maximize funding for repairs.

The longer a building’s mechanical and electrical systems are inoperable, the more continuing damage there is to the facility. Equipment like portable generators, boilers, and chillers can alleviate further potential damage and are reimbursable by FEMA.

Shortly after a natural disaster, FEMA will arrive to begin documenting damage. FEMA reviewers are extraordinarily thorough in their documentation efforts. However, because FEMA reviewers have no knowledge of the “before” state of the campus and buildings, someone from the college or university who is familiar with each building should also document the damaged areas by taking photos and making notes.  

Colleges and universities should also consider hiring an independent architectural and engineering firm to assist with the assessment and documentation of damage, including taking measurements to ensure that all damaged items are identified. It is critical that institutions complete documentation of damage to ensure appropriate funding for the repairs.  At UTMB, for example, SHW Group’s survey and documentation of the damage was later used to justify additional damage, resulting in FEMA increasing funding by close to 30 percent.
Looking Ahead
Once the initial cleanup is complete, it’s time to begin planning for a rebuild. This is an opportunity for an institution to not only repair disaster-damaged components, but to also bring damaged spaces up to current codes and standards. FEMA will consider funding code-related repairs up to the codes in place at the time of the event. In addition to these repairs, FEMA may also fund mitigation efforts to reduce the likeliness of future damage.  At UTMB, mitigation efforts were crucial to achieving the University’s goal of preparing for the next storm. 

“Mitigation is not an option at UTMB; it is a fact of life for our future,” observes Steven J. LeBlanc, assistant vice president for Risk Management, UTMB.

In order to justify mitigation funding, SHW Group worked with UTMB officials to evaluate what was damaged, and why the damaged items and areas succumbed to the storm. Then, SHW Group outlined creative design solutions to decrease the potential of future damage. The proposed design solutions were presented to FEMA, along with a detailed cost analysis comparing the implementation cost of the new designs versus the cost of replacing the items again. As a rule of thumb, FEMA may fund up to double the cost of the damaged item for a design solution that eliminates future flood damage. Through these creative design solutions, SHW Group increased UTMB’s funding for mitigation repairs by more than 
20 percent.

From a campus-wide stance, SHW Group worked with UTMB to identify critical equipment and functions in each building and redesigned the buildings to elevate these items to the second floor or higher. Areas like elevator machine rooms, mechanical and electrical equipment, and research areas are now located above anticipated future flood levels. In addition, the first-floor corridors of most buildings are constructed so that they can be cleaned up and reopened within one week, allowing for egress of upper floors. Other features include raising the electrical and data outlets above four ft. high to minimize the risk of future flood damage and still comply with the ADA.

“Our efforts must be campus-wide, as all of our facilities are interdependent on each other,” says LeBlanc.

When looking for ways to justify mitigation funding, it’s important to include all damaged elements to justify the mitigation-funding request. For example, at UTMB’s 1902 Harborside Building, in addition to the structural damage, thousands of medical records stored 
on the first floor were affected by floodwaters, costing $5M to dry properly. SHW Group designed a plan to dry-flood-proof the building — making it watertight up to 17 ft. above sea level — by removing the original concrete floor, installing a new concrete slab, and tying it to the existing deep foundation. This approach was approved by FEMA for an additional  $11M to protect the records in the event of another storm.

It’s also important to design mitigation solutions that don’t require human action to work; human life should not be risked to protect a building. UTMB’s Primary Care Pavilion, a 100,000-sq.-ft. clinic, suffered significant water damage. SHW Group helped UTMB obtain $6M in FEMA funding through a floodwall design plan, including floodgates that float up automatically when they fill with flood-water. Human intervention is not required, although gates can be manually lifted prior to evacuation. 

As renovation efforts at UTMB near completion, the campus is a better place than it was before Hurricane Ike. Through creative design decisions to address previous problem areas and well-thought-out strategies to maximize FEMA funding, the University has emerged from the impact of Hurricane Ike with not only improved functionality, but also better prepared to weather any future storms to hit the Texas coast. 

Dan Caren, AIA, LEED-AP BD+C, 
, is a vice president and Erin Machac, AIA, is an architect with SHW Group.