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Engineers rise to the demands of rebuilding effort

As with everything else, the engineering business on the Coast has changed dramatically since Hurricane Katrina swept ashore destroying tens of thousands of homes and businesses.
Engineers, many of whom may have lost their homes and/or office, are finding it hard to keep up with the demand.

“We were busy before,” said Don Parker, principal, Structural Design Solutions, Biloxi. “Now we are too busy. We are having a hard time keeping up with the demand.”

Initially Structural Design Solutions was doing forensic work after the hurricane to make determinations about whether wind or water action destroyed structures. The issue has been highly controversial because many buildings destroyed did not have flood insurance and were outside of the established FEMA flood zones.

Parker said they stopped doing forensic work because it was time consuming and difficult.

“At first we tried to help people by doing all we could,” Parker said. “It seemed like we were spinning our wheels and not getting anywhere. It was too time consuming. No one was happy when it was over. There is too much liability. We are not doing forensic anymore. We stopped doing wind versus water. Now we are trying to get buildings and homes designed, and working on construction management.”

With entire huge structures reduced to nothing but a slab, some experts have questioned whether it is even possible to engineer a building to withstand the type of forces seen during Katrina. Parker’s opinion is that it is possible to build in vulnerable areas to withstand an event similar to Katrina.

“But it is not economically feasible,” he said. “You can design the structure to withstand the storm, but not the finishes. It is fairly reasonably to make structures to handle the force, but it will gut out the interior. You will have water go through in low areas.

“The wind wasn’t really an issue. You can design for wind rather easily. You can’t keep water out unless you build higher. Anything below 28 feet above sea level is going to get washed out.”

While some people are building above 28 feet, much of the Coast is so close to sea level that it isn’t practical to rebuild that high. Buildings perched that high might look very odd to most people. And the additional costs would be significant.

Parker said most people just want to get back in a house as quickly as they can.

“They want to comply, and just get built,” he said. “We try to encourage people to make their buildings stronger and safe. People want quality controls to get the best for the money. But they rarely want to go 28 feet above sea level.”

Michael Costellin, P.E., president of Simplins & Costellin Inc., Gulfport, said two of the biggest challenges for engineers on the Coast after Katrina are meeting client’s deadlines and working with the clients’ insurance criteria for repair/demolition/renovation.

“Clients have increased their schedule expectations in order to rebuild quickly,” Costellin said. “At the same time, there is a reduced availability of surveyors for commercial work due to the increased level of residential work.”

Costellin said that modular housing companies are emerging as a viable solution to the shortage of homes. Some other trends he noted are increased Department of Defense emergency repair work, and more design/build approach to new construction rather than the traditional design/bid/build.

Professional engineers are required for certification of foundation and superstructure in V-zones, the areas of the coastline most susceptible to wind and wave action. Costellin said engineers should continue to improve construction to withstand even the kind of forces that Katrina brought to bear.

“Codes should be adopted to require construction at higher elevations with storm appropriate structures,” said Costellin, whose home in Gulfport was destroyed by the storm. “Katrina wiped out our historical wood-frame construction home, teaching a lesson not experienced here in over 115 years.”

It is not too much to expect engineers to design for catastrophic storm events, but meeting minimum local building code design will not achieve this, says Gordon H. Reigstad, PhD., P.E., S.E., president of Reigstad & Associates Inc., Structural Engineers, Biloxi.

“If clients accept local building code design, which is an absolute minimum design, that design likely will not survive a catastrophic event like Katrina,” Reigstad said. “The major challenge is deciding at what height to rebuild. Further, we are implementing more solutions to better deal with catastrophic water levels and the damaging effect of waves. Many of the solutions are not relatively expensive, but need to be included in the original construction.”

It isn’t so much a matter of designing structures that can withstand Katrina-like forces, but more a matter of vulnerability of the locations. Homes near the water are the most exposed. Reigstad said if the building’s lowest floor is high enough, the structure provides for uplift issues, and allows water to flow through the structure, the building has a greater chance of survival from a catastrophic event.

Reigstad said the portion of securely built buildings (not wood) above the high water fared very well, particularly cast-in-place concrete buildings. Also, structures that allowed the high water to pass through faired well.

“Although Katrina was well off the charts for 100-year events, we are able to design for wind speeds of that nature,” Reigstad said. “Many of the structures withstood the wind. However, the large velocity and speed of the rising water caused severe damage to anything impeding its flow. Wave forces can be orders of magnitude greater than wind. Also, structures experienced severe uplift loads. Those structures that were not designed for significant uplift failed.”

A major challenge is meeting the needs of everyone at one time. The schedule to rebuild for large casino clients is very accelerated due to tax considerations. But even with the importance of speed in designs, Reigstad said it is critical to use the most effective designs that minimize damage for catastrophic events and keep within clients’ budgets.

Immediately after the storm Reigstad & Associates was very busy doing structural inspections for insurance purposes. The rebuilding of the casinos and hotels along the Gulf Coast has increased the need for structural design services.

“Many of these casinos were existing clients prior to the storm, but with the increased interest by other casino owners, we have new clients, also,” Reigstad said.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

About Becky Gillette

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