Working with Communities to Build Back Better - A Letter from Rachel Minnery

Working with Communities to Build Back Better - A Letter from Rachel Minnery

  • by Architecture for Humanity
  • Oct 29, 2013
  • comments

In its 15-year history, Architecture for Humanity has launched nine post-disaster programs worldwide, but when the largest hurricane on record hit the largest city in the United States in the very last days of hurricane season, we knew it would be something different.

Five million individuals affected by the storm were facing a long road ahead. We remain compassionately committed to resilient post-disaster reconstruction because we know from our years of work with survivor communities that there is no easy button, no off-the-shelf solutions at the local hardware store, and very little light shed on the path forward for those needing to rebuild their lives. Architecture for Humanity created a program to focus on the communities with the greatest need for design and construction services. We wouldn’t just build back – we would help survivors build back better, stronger, and more resiliently. I am honored to work for some incredibly strong, warm and wonderful survivors, and very grateful to our many partners, funders, volunteers and collaborators, who have generously offered their time and support where there is still overwhelming need.

Our response began with our largest chapter, the Architecture for Humanity New York Chapter. With over 200 volunteers, the chapter surveyed home and business owners in several NYC neighborhoods. Having completed nearly 500 surveys, The Neighborhood Assessment Project revealed common concerns in each neighborhood, unique building typologies not readily adaptable to standard retrofit solutions, and hurting families with a deep need for support.

Led by a team of national post-disaster experts and local architects, the New York regional office was formed and dedicated to the Hurricane Sandy Reconstruction program. An extensive effort was made to survey schools impacted in both New York and New Jersey. Longtime Architecture for Humanity supporter, Nike, Inc. provided seed funding for the launch of the ReNew Schools program, where three schools in each state would benefit from the reconstruction program. We began working with New York City’s Department of Education (DOE), the largest school district in the US, on repairs and retrofits of their athletic and recreational facilities at Beach Channel High School, Surfside School and Bay Academy. When the DOE’s own School Construction Authority emerged as the preferable design-build contractor for the work, our efforts were able to focus on the smaller New Jersey school districts of Toms River, Union Beach and Little Ferry. I am excited to announce that we are kicking off the community design process in the next week. Special thanks to ReNew probono architect partners Craig Brearly, Acari Iovino, Andrew Franz and Perkins+Will for their generosity, passion and talent!

After the devastating fire broke out this September in Seaside Park and Seaside Heights, New Jersey, we were painfully reminded of the continued vulnerability in a post-disaster environment, and our hearts broke for those communities once again. Seaside’s historic boardwalk binds together memories and experiences for decades of residents and visitors and has become the literal, if not symbolic, lifeline of the community. Delayed by fire, the community design kick-off for Restore the Shore’s events center and improvements to its beloved boardwalk will commence today, on the anniversary of Hurricane Sandy. We thank MTV and all the donors who are making this community project possible, including our probono architect Gensler from Morristown, NJ.

With lessons learned from the response to Hurricane Katrina, local and federal agencies mounted a robust recovery effort unlike any other. In spite of the best of efforts, disaster recovery is a long, difficult and complicated process. People not only struggle to find the resources they need to rebuild, but also struggle with the complicated decisions to be made in a constantly evolving recovery situation. With the national Flood Insurance Program retiring certain premium subsidies to remain solvent, there is uncertainty about the future cost of home ownership. After two rounds of advisory base flood elevations, some 600,000 New Yorkers alone reside in newly designated flood zones. Keeping in mind that flood maps do not account for sea level rise or other impacts of climate change, reconstruction must include resilient approaches to the rebuilding of our communities if we are to reduce our vulnerability.

Our latest endeavor built upon a series of evening community forums - a pilot project entitled Sandy Design Help Desk brought together partners at NYC Office of Housing Recovery, Enterprise Community Partners and Pratt Center for Community Development, with our hosts Margert Development Corporation. Specially trained volunteer architects and designers answered rebuilding, retrofit and code questions for people who are without the resources needed to repair their homes in the Far Rockaways of Queens, NY in the free week-long community design clinic. Over 30 families and businesses benefited from the Help Desk…and we hope many more! In the coming weeks, look for us to share big news about an exciting new program launch, which will support active resilient recovery efforts for those who need it most - in Sandy impacted areas and beyond.

Just this past Saturday October 26th, a ceremonial groundbreaking took place for “New York Resilient House,” designed by Sustainable.TO. This House is the winning entry for Queens, New York in Designing Recovery, a design competition sponsored through a partnership between Architecture for Humanity, the American Institute of Architects, St. Bernard Project, and Make It Right Foundation. This competition was designed to solicit innovative resilient designs for single family homes located in areas affected by recent natural disasters – Joplin, MO, New Orleans, LA, and Queens, New York, with one winner chosen for each location. This winning entry for New York will be the first of three houses to be built as an outcome of this competition.

Last but not least, our work could never be possible without the great generosity of our supporters, funders and volunteers. All too many to mention individually here in this letter, but we would like to make a special shout out to our friends at Turner Townsend Ferzan Robbins who have not only partnered on our Sandy projects, but also have graciously hosted the NY team’s office space.

It is an honor and great privilege to work with these individuals and communities at such a difficult and critical time in their lives. I do hope we will continue to earn your support, guidance and collaboration to help how best we can. They need us!

- Rachel Minnery, Architecture for Humanity New York Regional Program Manager


Hurricane Sandy Reconstruction Program

For our full Hurricane Sandy Program: One Year Anniversary Update, see here.

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