Sitting on an ocean beachfront watching children building sandcastles, one lesson is clear even to a child: If you build too close to the water’s edge, your work is destined for disaster.

When Jean Baptiste le Moyen de Bienville decided in 1718 to establish his settlement, now known as New Orleans, in the swamplands of the Mississippi Delta, little consideration was given to future problems. This lack of foresight resulted in placing yet another American city at risk.

When Katrina hit New Orleans, it cut power to the pumping stations and, without a reliable backup system, the city’s protection plan failed. Subsequent breaches in the levee system resulted in 80% of residential and business areas being submerged in raw sewage, gasoline and other toxic chemicals.

Most building materials such as plaster, drywall, wood, thermal insulation and fireproofing are hydroscopic. They will absorb water and hold it for an extended period of time, thereby increasing the chances of microbial growth (mold) to occur throughout the city. These same materials can absorb and hold toxic substances, which may result in the mandatory demolition of many structures.

The sustained wind in excess of 145 mph also will require that many steel-framed buildings be surveyed for damage to critical connections. And there must be an evaluation of infrastructure needs because electrical, natural gas, sewer and domestic water services may have sustained damage. Finally, residential foundations need to be checked for damage and shifting.

This disaster could be just the beginning. There are other American cities also at risk. In Los Angeles, for example, there are areas of high-risk development extending from downtown to the port.

Vulnerable View

Downtown Los Angeles sits on an active earthquake fault, yet there are plans to construct 14 high-rise structures in the area. In an area known as Playa Vista, 7,000 new luxury residential living units have been constructed in a natural wetlands about 20 ft above sea level.

The recent tsunami in Indonesia developed a wall of water approximately 50 ft high traveling at 200 mph. The owners of the Playa properties are required to sign a disclosure that they are purchasing property in a known tsunami zone. This would be of little consolation in the event of an offshore or downtown earthquake.

There also is discussion in the city about development of a liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal in the port area. This represents an obvious danger to businesses and residences throughout the area.

Recent government studies suggest that if there was an LNG tanker explosion in Boston Harbor, home to a terminal, a minimum of 100,000 lives would be lost in minutes. In Los Angeles, a similar disaster could claim up to one million people.

In San Francisco, there are equal risks. Following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, an unstable soils condition was created throughout the Marina district. Burned-out masonry and wood structures were used as landfill for future development. These materials became a big factor during the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 when many Marina structures were badly damaged due to liquefaction.

We have constructed wonders throughout the world on precarious natural foundations. If we are determined to build and rebuild in high-risk areas, every community must honestly reflect on its respective vulnerability to environmental disasters and terrorist events and develop common-sense preparedness programs. These should teach everyone how to care for themselves for two weeks until rescuers can respond.

Projects that reduce risks associated with the location should be encouraged. Proposed high-risk projects should be regulated and property developers should pay the cost of defense systems and on-going emergency preparedness programs. Federal insurance policies should be phased out for high-risk projects. That alone will force greater consideration of the issues. Let’s stop building sandcastles and start building safely.

Dean Vlahos, AIA, is principal and director of forensics for Santa Monica,
Calif.-based architectural firm WWCOT. He can be reached at
310-828-0040, extension 375, or at deanv@wwcot.com.