Louisiana is susceptible to many types of disasters. According to GOHSEP, the state’s location on the Gulf Coast and the Mississippi River watershed, which drains over 40% of the continental U.S., provides little buffer to storms and disasters.
When a disaster strikes, the effects can be far-reaching and the impact may be felt for years. When Hurricane Katrina made landfall along the Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005, the devastation was far greater than anyone expected. In New Orleans, the levees broke, leaving buildings and communities under water for weeks. As the water began to recede and people returned to see the condition of their homes and communities, Hurricane Rita struck, causing more damage and further delaying recovery.
At the time, Hurricane Katrina was the most destructive and costliest natural disaster in United States history. The loss of human life in Louisiana was beyond what anyone imagined possible. Damage to property was apparent on a massive scale. During recovery efforts, preservation organizations realized that there was no difference in how new buildings and historic buildings were treated. Formulas used by insurance companies and government offices to determine whether a damaged building is “beyond repair” made no accommodations for its historic value or significance to a community. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, preservation organizations demanded that historic buildings be evaluated based on historic standards rather than simply the value of their construction materials. Historic buildings are the fabric of communities and have stood the test of time as people, culture, and ways of life have changed.
Any place on the map can be impacted by a natural disaster. When a disaster strikes, it can affect many different aspects of a person’s life—family, home, work, schools—all at the same time. Planning ahead can decrease the severity of damage and reduce recovery time.
It is likely that a homeowner will need to plan for or face more than one type of disaster. Hurricanes illustrate this point. For those living near the coast, threats from hurricanes can include tidal forces, flooding, and high winds. People living farther inland may not need to worry about waves, but should prepare for the possibility of tornadoes that are often spawned by a hurricane or high winds. Low-lying areas near a body of water may be at risk for flooding, even if they are not close to the Gulf.
This booklet includes recommendations for ways to better prepare or “harden” historic homes to withstand disasters. In addition to local building codes, there are aesthetic, cost, and accessibility issues that homeowners should consider when making decisions for protecting historic homes. Determining which threats a home may face will aid in deciding which recommendations are applicable. It may be necessary to develop a prioritized plan that requires multiple years to complete.
As a country, we acknowledge that historic homes have value and character not often found in new buildings. The National Register of Historic Places lists historic buildings, archeological sites, and landscapes recognized by the American people for their significance. State and local preservation groups also maintain lists of sites important to their histories. These lists often contain only a portion of eligible sites. In the South alone, about 11% of the housing stock was built more than 50 years ago and could be considered historically significant. Even if a home is not officially recognized for its historic significance, the recommendations in this booklet can still be helpful.
Historic homes were designed and built for their environment. In flood prone areas, they were frequently raised off the ground on piers or posts to avoid damage from high water. When possible, they were oriented facing the water to allow for air movement under the house that assists in cooling during the warmer months. Shutters were placed on windows and doors to offer shade during the hottest part of the day and protection during storms. Design elements such as these often served multiple purposes that over time may have been lost or forgotten.
Historically, people often built their homes on the highest ground because this provided the best protection from flooding. As cities and towns grow and spread out, what once was considered undesirable land is now the only affordable option available. Some of the hardest-hit areas after any disaster are often poorer, lower-lying communities that lack the natural protection found in earlier-settled areas.
Historic wood frame buildings were often built with old growth trees that were stronger and more durable than modern lumber. In Louisiana, cypress was used because of its durability in this climate. The materials and building designs utilized were able to withstand damage from a natural disaster such as flooding, better than more modern materials and designs. Numerous historic buildings in south Louisiana have proven resilient, surviving Hurricanes Betsy and Camille. After Hurricane Ike, the few historic buildings left standing on the Bolivar Peninsula in Galveston County, Texas, were able to be repaired and reoccupied. Past events have shown that historic materials can usually be salvaged after a disaster, while more modern materials are lost. Historic buildings, having withstood the tests of time and natural disasters, offer lessons in how to build smart and protect ourselves from natural threats.
The retrofits suggested in this booklet will offer greater protection, but they are not a guarantee that a home will suffer no damage. Future storms may be more powerful than expected or planned for. A storm shutter system designed to withstand 120 mile per hour winds may fail in a hurricane or tornado with 140 mile per hour winds. Sometimes storms happen so fast that a homeowner is unable to get protections in place in time. On other occasions safety measures that are beyond the control of the homeowner may fail, as when a levee fails. While no disaster prevention plan or material is foolproof, properly hardening a home will better prepare it to withstand disasters, reduce damage, lower the cost of recovery, and allow the homeowner to return sooner.
Careful consideration should be given to the effects of retrofits on historic homes. Many retrofits can be completed without negatively or significantly affecting historic character. However, there may be instances where the retrofit that best protects the building negatively affects its historic character or features. In those instances, the homeowner and their designer or contractor will have to discuss the best course of action. Owners of buildings with an official historic designation should consult local or state preservation offices to determine if the retrofits are appropriate. Owners of buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places should contact the Louisiana Division of Historic Preservation for advice on specific treatments. Additional guidance can be found in the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties, which offers general guidelines and best practices for working on historic homes.
All local, state, and federal building codes and regulations should be followed when undertaking construction projects. Often allowances are made for historic buildings which might not otherwise meet current codes. However, homeowners should be aware that if substantial repairs or improvements are planned then the whole house may need to be brought up to code. Repairs or improvements are usually considered substantial if the cost of the work is greater than 50% of the value of the home. Some retrofits require a licensed engineer to ensure they do not compromise the structural integrity of a building. These retrofits are identified in this booklet.
There are many factors that may affect a homeowner’s decision when determining which retrofits to consider, such as aesthetics, cost, future risks, accessibility concerns, and code requirements. A simple cost-benefit analysis can help determine whether the retrofits being considered are appropriate. Before beginning a project a homeowner and the professionals they are working with should inspect the house, paying particular attention to the height of the lowest floor, mechanical and electrical equipment, and any openings in the exterior walls or floors. The condition of roof covering and the types of framing connections present should also be determined. These areas are most likely to be significantly improved with retrofits.
Human safety always comes first. When selecting retrofits, homeowners should consider maintenance and installation requirements. It may be impractical for an elderly or disabled homeowner to install heavy removable shutters in advance of an approaching storm. Retrofitting a home to withstand disasters does not negate basic safety considerations. Homeowners should always follow evacuation orders during a disaster.
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