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 Phillip Rollfing  

Key West summit eyes post-hurricane recovery

A&M team presents plans, strategies
for transforming Key West community



Preparing for the inevitable, citizens and community leaders of Key West, Fla., took a progressive look at innovative hurricane preparedness and post-hurricane recovery options developed by faculty and students at Texas A&M University during a special two-day summit held July 20-21 at Key West High School.

The city invited a team of architects, landscape architects, urban planners, disaster mitigation specialists and students from Texas A&M’s College of Architecture to share the latest thinking for empowering communities in the aftermath of a major hurricane.

“We are all in it together on this island, and if some of us get hurt, like we did in [Hurricane] Wilma, we all get hurt; especially our vulnerable populations like children and the elderly,” said Morgan McPherson, mayor of Key West. “Most of us were lucky last year, but some of us were badly hit. We want a plan so we can take care of each other.”

According to summit organizers, the objective of this grassroots, communitywide initiative was to re-conceptualize disaster recovery as a community event. They want to:

• Formalize a recovery and enhancement plan in the event that a Category 2 through 5 storm hits the Florida Keys;

• Inform summit participants of the appropriate procedures to follow before, during and after such events; and

• Develop community awareness of the role design and planning can play in resolving disaster-related problems.

“The College of Architecture at Texas A&M University and our Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center are uniquely suited for addressing problems related to natural and man-made disasters,” explained J. Thomas Regan, dean of the college.

“In the aftermath of the Katrina hurricane disaster,” Regan continued, “the college marshaled its intellectual resources to support recovery and reconstruction efforts throughout the U.S. Gulf Coast. For the last year, we have employed our uniquely deep and broad multidisciplinary expertise to develop sustainable, just, economically viable and holistic solutions to disaster preparedness and recovery.”

One such project was a design studio, led by landscape architecture professor Jody Rosenblatt Naderi and supported by faculty throughout the college, which took aim at disaster contingencies for Key West.

“We are very pleased and honored by this opportunity to share the fruits of those labors with the citizens of Key West,” said Regan.

The Texas A&M team’s “empowering” post-disaster vision for Key West involves the speedy transformation of pre-defined relief areas into small and large livable communities with amenities addressing the entire spectrum of post-disaster needs — physical, as well as emotional, explained Rosenblatt Naderi, leader of Texas A&M’s Key West initiative. The vision calls for portable, off-the-grid housing, “surge” healthcare centers to alleviate potentially overwhelmed or inoperative hospitals, communication and infrastructure hubs, and even shaded “pop-up” parks, supervised playground facilities and planned activities for children and families — components which can be quickly set up and operable in the wake of a devastating event.

A poster exhibit showcasing the A&M team’s post-disaster solutions for the Key West community were displayed at the summit, and a book highlighting summit proceedings was prepared and distributed to participants after the event.

“What makes Key West unique,” said Rosenblatt Naderi, who is a native of the Florida Keys, “is a cultural attitude that favors riding out a storm over evacuating. Research shows that many coastal cultures view hurricanes as both a creative and destructive force. Our post-disaster strategy takes advantage of this concept by focusing on community recovery, and even individual healing, as a transformative experience that can be supported by recovery sites designed to encourage this renewal process.”

Among the problems addressed by Rosenblatt Naderi’s design studio, was developing a strategy to avoid the mishaps that occurred in the aftermath of Wilma — a Category 2 hurricane that brushed Key West late last October, causing considerable wind damage and widespread flooding.

There were no appropriate community sites then for staging relief efforts, recalled Ty Symroski, then city planner for Key West, “just hot and shade-less lines for everything from water to insurance information. The federal recovery support [workers] shuttled everyone through a system designed to give out FEMA information and survival supplies, but [the effort] was not designed to handle our needs with dignity or to consider that our recovery might require places to come together as a community.”

Working with Symroski, the Texas A&M landscape architecture students developed plans for directing relief trucks, workers and the initial flood of disaster response personnel to 27 pre-defined staging areas, such as schools, parking lots and municipal buildings, which would be prepared to contend with the many facets of disaster relief.

“We knew if a hurricane hit, people would all have to live cut off from the mainland for up to a month or longer,” said Travis Hawkins, a senior landscape architecture student whose work on the project entailed a great deal of research into the history, geography and culture of the Florida Keys, which are exclusively attached to the mainland by U.S. Highway 1. “That meant food, materials, water and communications all had to be provided for on site or imported via water and air.”

The project also detailed the possible conversion of the 37-acre Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park into a “Village of Renewal,” which could be a temporary home for up to 5,000 displaced residents. That plan examined everything from portable housing, to the use of a nuclear submarine to generate energy for the temporary community.

Other Texas A&M faculty working with Rosenblatt Naderi’s studio include Pliny Fisk, an architecture professor and director of the Center for Maximum Building Potential, who focused on portable housing solutions and issues of sustainability; Carla Prater, associate director of Texas A&M’s Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center, who directed disaster planning and mitigation initiatives; and Nancy Volkman, a professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning.

Key West community leaders who participated in the summit included the mayor, city council members, the chamber of commerce, local architects and urban planners, representatives from the local electric and water authorities, and even members of the Key West arts community.

“If people know what is going on, they will be more likely to participate in the preparation and recovery efforts,” said Donna Flowers, an assistant to the mayor and member of the committee that is organizing the summit. “We joke about partying during the hurricane because none of us leave, but we also need to understand that no one will help us more than we can help ourselves.”


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Student work from LAUP professor Jody Rosenblatt Naderi's design studio

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“Be prepared for some extraordinary things to happen, and some rather rum stuff too, should Key West be seriously damaged in a major hurricane — and should the strategies proposed at last week’s hurricane symposium be implemented as the city’s recovery plan,” begins an article on the summit penned by Mark Howell, for the Key West news weekly, Solares Hill. For full article text: