Eskew+Dumez+Ripple’s bounce back from Katrina’s “worst case scenario” offers lessons in disaster preparedness for any firm.

Three days before Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans was a Friday.  At the end of the day, staff members at Eskew+Dumez+Ripple (EDR) said goodbye, looking forward to seeing everyone at the company barbecue scheduled for Sunday. Storm tracking predicted the landfall far from the city. When the path shifted Saturday morning and the call to evacuate the city was issued, the firm’s CFO decided to mow her lawn just in case the evacuation proved longer than the standard three days. Those with friends and relatives in Baton Rouge, 90 miles inland, relocated there, but some headed to Houston, Dallas, and Nashville. Most took with them a printout of the company directory with personal cell numbers and other key company information.

In the chaos after the storm struck, the levees failed and the flooding began, communications were snarled. It wasn’t until ten days after landfall that all 25 staff members had successfully been located. The levees thought to protect the city had failed in over 50 locations, covering the New Orleans metropolitan area in a toxic soup of seawater, sewage, and the contents of ruptured gasoline and chemical storage tanks. We knew many residents had died, but reports were impossible to confirm. The National Guard had cordoned the city and news media was discussing whether abandonment might make more sense than rebuilding.

For any design firm, this is a “worst case scenario.” In the aftermath of 9/11, Superstorm Sandy, earthquakes, tsunamis, and devastating tornados, more firms are thinking through disaster preparedness.  Seven and a half years after Katrina, EDR is a healthy firm, with staff larger than its pre-Katrina levels. Working towards resilient buildings and a resilient city has changed the nature of our practice in ways that may hold insights for any firm thinking about disaster preparedness.

Being based in “Hurricane Alley”, we were used to preparing for heavy storms, power outages, and even periodic voluntary evacuations.   Many in the Gulf South are accustomed to the idea of monitoring the weather reports, boarding up the windows, and leaving town for a few days for an unexpected visit with inland friends or relatives, then returning to help with clean up. The magnitude of post-Katrina flood damage and population relocation, however, put our standard preparedness practices to the test.  

The first challenge was communication. We maintained an emergency contact list with local and ‘evacuation location’ contact phone numbers and alternate cloud based email addresses, and each staff member left town with a printout. Nevertheless, the storm damaged so many cell towers across the region that cell service was spotty and frequently overloaded; some older staff that had never used text messaging were taught how by their teenage children. Because cell phone service proved so problematic, we have added another key item: the phone number and email address of someone far away you will check in with if you are on the move. We instituted a daily 9 a.m. conference call to allow dispersed firm leaders to share information and make critical decisions. Luckily, even though we had hosted our e-mail with an in-office server, we were able to swing that service off-site quickly. After these experiences, we moved towards more redundancy in the ways they communicate and in IT providers.

The second challenge was cash flow. We maintained a healthy cash reserve, a line of credit with our bankers, and business interruption insurance which allowed us to move forward quickly into temporary facilities and continue to pay our staff while we determined our short term next steps. We were lucky; some banks in the city lost access to their records in the first few days of the storm, and some firms found it difficult to access their funds. In the years since, most banks have developed more robust, distributed records systems, but the prudent firm will keep its reserves (enough to meet at least six weeks’ expenses) spread across multiple banks.  It would be wrong, however, to take as the lesson to only use national banks; the personal contact and relationships of many years with local banks proved crucial to our survival in the early days after the storm.

In hindsight, one reason the firm was able to adapt as quickly as it did was that each key area of operations (finance, IT, insurance, etc.) had a ‘lead’ and an ‘understudy’ principal responsible, empowered to act. For example, even though the firm principals weren’t all able to reach each other the day after the storm hit, the paperwork for a business interruption insurance claim was filed that day.

Within a few days of the storm, our firm principals met to assess the situation and face the hardest questions:  

  • Should we relocate temporarily or permanently to another city?
  • In the near term, what work is available?  
  • How many employees can this work support?  
  • How do we balance client workload with personal and community recovery efforts?

The firm chose to set up at least temporarily in Baton Rouge. Architecture firms based in Baton Rouge allowed EDR and New Orleans firms to squeeze in temporarily.  We quickly rented a storefront space in downtown Baton Rouge and set up laptops. The AIA national organization helped with loaner computers and software.  Two of our firm principals used personal lines of credit to secure housing in our new city, allowing some of the employees and our families to bunk in. The rest doubled up with friends and relatives in their new host cities.

It was eleven days after evacuating before any firm staff were able to weave their way past National Guard roadblocks to make it back to our office in a downtown office tower, which had suffered curtainwall damage and was without power. The computer servers were carried down 31 flights of stairs and relocated to the temporary office in Baton Rouge. In a sense, having some damage proved lucky; our business interruption insurance carried a clause that required damage to the policyholder’s facilities to trigger. Other firms that suffered business interruption but no actual damage to their offices were less lucky.  We have since switched to business interruption insurance that does not require this trigger.

Many projects in New Orleans were cancelled or went on hold; the out-of-town projects in the portfolio kept the firm going in those first few weeks. As luck would have it we also happened to have a small federal IDIQ (indefinite delivery / indefinite quantity) contract already in place.  Having a contract already in place allowed new work — assessing the status of buildings damaged in the storm — to be quickly assigned to the firm. This assessment work helped cover the gap from many local projects that were cancelled or went on hold in the wake of the flooding. Our staff, while busy rebuilding their own homes, also threw themselves into the city-scale re-thinking that was going on in the early months after the storm. Having deep contacts in the community opened many doors; the first new client won after the storm was repair work to a school attended by the child of a staff member. Within a few months, new work began rolling in, including the first “quick-start” replacement schools, intended to serve as a template for a new generation of schools across the city.

By Thanksgiving 2005, three months after Katrina, EDR was back in our office in New Orleans, although many staff had not yet been able to relocate back to the city.  Some worked remotely. Some staff went “on loan” to firms and universities in other cities. Some staff made the choice for family or personal reasons not to return. Within a year, EDR had rebuilt its staff to 18 from the pre-Katrina level of 25. The surge of rebuilding work has resulted in the firm more than doubling since then.

In fact, one irony of such a surge in work is that our mix of projects has become more heavily concentrated in our home city, leaving us more vulnerable to the next local natural or man-made disaster. It’s hard to say ‘no’ to helping rebuild the city you love and know better than a firm from out of town, especially when the national economy takes a downturn. As many rebuilding projects approach completion and the national economy regains its footing, we are focusing on rebalancing our work portfolio to a healthy mix of local, regional, national, and international projects.

In the years since Katrina, EDR has taken a more conscious approach to questions of resilience.  This applies to our internal processes, to our design work, and to our civic leadership role.

In our internal processes, EDR has tuned its disaster preparedness and tested them in the mandatory evacuation under hurricane Gustav and voluntary evacuation and extended power outages associated with hurricane Isaac.  E-mail has moved to the Cloud, our communication and financial systems have redundancy built in.  But it’s still critical to keep the essential “grab and go” box of key firm papers and valuable items ready to move on short notice. Critical items to include (hard copies recommended):

■  Insurance policy numbers and contact information

■  Password list and web addresses for internet based services

■  Staff contact information including alternate contact phone numbers for “out of area” resource (someone who will know where you are)

■  Essential client, vendor and business contact information and account numbers

■  Current project drawings or digital files and contact information

■  Portable hard drives containing current project data

In our design work, clients are increasingly receptive to issues of both sustainability and resilience — to buildings that can stay comfortable with passive strategies when power is out, to consolidation of critical functions into “lifeboats” that can be supported by emergency power for extended periods, to building envelope assemblies that withstand the worst weather and dry out if the envelope is compromised. To deepen our understanding, we have started an EDR Research Fellowship program, allowing recent graduates time and freedom to explore key questions unconstrained by day-to-day project deliverables; the focus for last year was on sustainability, and the focus for this year is resilience.  

At the civic scale, New Orleans is still working on the question of how to make evacuations and “reloading of the city” work for all its citizens. This ranges from efforts to make sure those without access to cars can make it to easily identifiable pick-up points near where they live, to working with animal shelters to help people evacuate companion animals rather than stay behind. At the largest scale, Katrina has taught us that what leads to a city’s resilience isn’t just the strength of its walls but the strength of the bonds among its people, the love of place and culture that make its home city one that makes living anywhere else hard to imagine.

Z Smith has been involved in nationally published sustainability research and design for the past ten years. He has served as a Project Architect for carbon neutral, net-zero energy and net-zero water use buildings, and taught sustainable design courses at universities in the U.S. and Canada. Smith is EDR’s Director of Sustainability & Building Performance. He compiled this article on behalf of the firm