Designed for disaster

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, October 2005:

HOUSTON, BUCHAREST, SAN DIEGO– Insisting in 1996 that the
current Houston SPCA shelter be built to withstand a Category 4
hurricane, longtime executive director Patty Mercer was accused of
alleged extravagance–but Mercer had seen in 1992 the damage done to
shelters in southern Florida by Hurricane Andrew.
Mercer looks like a seer today. The Houston SPCA, already
handling more than 35,000 animals per year, took in 270 animals from
the Louisiana SPCA and much of the Louisiana SPCA staff just ahead of
Hurricane Katrina, and continued to house most Louisiana SPCA
activities for weeks afterward, after Katrina wrecked the Louisiana
SPCA shelter and inundated most of New Orleans for a month.
More than a million Houstonians evacuated ahead of Hurricane
Rita, but the Houston SPCA didn’t. Animals were trucked to shelters
farther away, so that the Houston SPCA could accommodate evacuees
from elsewhere–like 57 dogs and 28 cats who arrived the evening of
September 25 from the Humane Society of Southeast Texas in Beaumont.
In Romania, Asociatia Natura cofounder Carmen Milobendzchi
showed similar foresight. An architect by trade, Milobendzchi opted
to build slowly, as funding became available, rather than take
chances, cut corners, and get the job “done” only to have to
rebuild after one disaster.

The disaster came on September 20, as the Bucharest suburbs
were inundated. Of the 32 Romanian counties, at least 25 have been
flooded since April 2001.
“After I built the enclosures,” Milobendzchi told ANIMAL
PEOPLE, “some people accused me of using too much concrete and
reinforcement for the floors, but all the rain we have had did not
affect them much. Flooding in our inner court goes into the concrete
drainage, and is guided under the floor to the courtyard. Of course
the courtyard is flooded, but the dogs are still dry. The drainage
system is not finished in all the courtyard,” Milobendzchi
acknowledged, “because of lack of money. Not all of the electrical
installation was done, for the same reasons, and our temporarily
installed generator is out of order. Also the cesspit flooded and
everything inside was mixed with water and came out into the
That was a mess, but messes can be cleaned up.
Just days before the latest Romanian flooding, Milobendzchi
got a chance to compare notes with Bill Adelson of Tucker Sadler &
Associates, the internationally known San Diego design firm that has
planned a complete revamp of the Helen Woodward Animal Center in
Chula Vista, California.
“I am sure that the shelter industry in the southeast is in
shambles now,” Adelson told Milobendzchi and ANIMAL PEOPLE in
follow-up discussion by e-mail. “I don’t know when the last
hurricane occurred in San Diego. The naturally occurring threat”
that Tucker Sadler most worries about, Adleson said, “is seismic.
We are in Seismic Zone 4, the most severe. By the time a building is
designed to the strict requirements of Zone 4, it can probably
handle a Category 4 or 5 hurricane,” Adelson anticipated.
“New buildings here are very rigid,” Adelson added, but in
light of the damage done to shelters by Katrina, he promised to
“check the wind uplift requirements for roofing in San Diego; I will
see what the premium is to withstand 150-mile-per-hour wind events.
“The very specific issue facing us and Helen Woodward is that
the Center is in a flood plain,” Adelson continued. ‘You may know
that every winter, at least once or twice, horses have to evacuated
from the Center due to flooding. This past winter they had five
evacuations, I believe. So the strategic question for us,
analogous to Patty Mercer’s decision,” in planning the Houston SPCA
shelter, “is, do we design the Center to withstand the 100-year
flood requirement, the code minimum, or do we plan for the 500-year
flood level? As always, there is a cost versus long-term benefit
“It sounds like Carmen was unable to afford the flood control
measures that we have been discussing at length for Helen Woodward,”
Adelson noted, including “raising the site up several feet and
putting in various concrete culverts and channels to control the
water flow. But Bucharest is a world or two away from Rancho Santa
Fe, California,” he concluded, not least because the Helen
Woodward Animal Center raises $4.4 million dollars a year, while the
Asociatia Natura raised a record $50,000 in 2004.
The disparity in precipitation is also significant. Rancho
Santa Fe normally gets just 10.8 inches of rain per year, yet still
contends with flash floods. Bucharest gets 23.4 inches per year.
That convinced Milobendzchi to plan for flooding as a constant
threat, even working with tightly limited resources.
Shelters built elsewhere in Romania by British philanthropist
Robert Smith have also “had no serious problems with flooding,”
“As you may remember our Campina shelter is next to the
river,” Smith said, “but I put the buildings on 1-meter
platforms–contrary to the advice of the builder, incidentally–and
of course now I am glad I did. A few wooden kennels floated away and
we were up to about 20 centimeters of water in some places, but the
dogs were all okay and no serious damage was done. Oradea was not
affected, and our shelter in Mioveni is up on a hill.”

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