Man on the Ground

Eric Cesal, Architecture’s First Responder

The Architecture for Humanity volunteer tells Malcolm Jones about responding to disasters from Haiti to the Rockaways.

Eric Cesal has seen more than his share of destruction, from the Gulf Coast in the wake of Katrina to earthquake-ravaged Haiti and Japan pounded by a tsunami. He’s all too familiar with Mother Nature’s destructive side. The hardest part for this 35-year-old architect, he says after a week of surveying Hurricane Sandy’s devastation, is that it never gets any easier.

“Your senses don’t blunt after each disaster,” he says, “so every time you’re talking to someone who has lost their home or their business, it feels fresh, like you’ve never heard it before or seen it before.”

Six years ago, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Cesal volunteered with Architecture for Humanity (AFH), a nonprofit organization whose mission includes helping to rebuild communities devastated by natural disasters. After eight months in Biloxi and New Orleans, Cesal joined AFH’s payroll, and ever since he’s been globe-trotting as the organization’s first man on the ground in the wake of natural calamities. By his count, Sandy is his fifth disaster seen up close.

Just be careful calling him AFH’s first responder, a notion he gently pushes aside with the deference that threads through all his conversation.

“We’re not first responders. I’m not a fireman. I may be a first responder for this organization, but we’re really a last responder. We don’t do emergency relief, we don’t do shelters, that sort of thing. We focus very much on long-term redevelopment. We go into a disaster zone to get a sense of things and start planning our efforts, but when I run across these first responders trying to provide food and blankets and medical care, I’m just trying to stay out of the way.”

A week after Sandy hit, Cesal went to work, exploring the chain of barrier islands from Cape May to the Rockaways and on into Brooklyn. Along the way, he saw plenty of “Katrina-level damage.” But what struck him was the scope and sheer variety of the wreckage: “The difference with this disaster is that it covers such a wide region, so there’s a damage zone about 160 miles long. Within that you have a diversity of housing types, community types, soil types. That’s what is going to make the Sandy recovery particularly complicated. It varies from block to block. You may find one neighborhood completely wiped out, and three blocks away there’s one that’s relatively fine.”

Clearly no one solution was going to work for everyone. “A community of seniors in coastal New Jersey is very different from a community in Red Hook, Brooklyn, where there are a lot of small businesses and young professionals,” he says. “If you try to apply the same strategy to both, at least one would be unsuccessful, if not both. We can take lessons from prior disasters—and we’ve done quite a few of them at this point—and apply them to rebuilding, and we’ve gotten pretty good at some of these strategies, but part of that skill set means having open eyes and fresh ears on every new situation.

“Communities aren’t like buildings. They’re made up of people and ethos and spirit and culture. If you want to rebuild a place well, you have to understand those things and they vary from town to town. That involves being on the ground, meeting and talking with people, finding out what is important to them, understanding what the cultural anchors to their community really were. In some towns it’s the local high school, in others it’s the local coffee shop. In every town, it’s a different story as to what’s critical. We as an organization are trying to heal communities in the most efficient way, so we look for those cultural anchors and try to help in rebuilding them.”

The first thing he learned about the communities he visited after Sandy was just how tough the locals were. “I don’t know if it’s a stereotype, or a cliché or a compliment, but they talk about people being Jersey-strong and New York-tough, and I definitely saw a lot of that on my trip. These are people who want to use their own blood and guts to get their communities back up and moving.”

For all its long-term goals, Architecture for Humanity knows how to hit the ground running. One of the first organizations it hooked up with after Sandy was New York Says Thank You, a group of New York City first responders who organized as a humanitarian aid group after 9/11, when “they received so much help and support from their fellow firefighters and police around the country,” says Cesal. “They came down and did a lot of work in Biloxi and New Orleans. We know them from there. They’ve got some neighborhoods they are looking at—firemen and policemen—and we’re trying to partner with them to get these guys back in their homes.”

A lot of Sandy’s damage was, Cesal acknowledges, the result of heedlessness or, not to put too fine a point on it, plain stupidity. “That’s kind of what made it a disaster: no one thought it was going to happen,” he says. “Did New York expect a tidal surge of that magnitude? I would have to say no. Talking to a lot of residents on the ground, you hear them talk about the warnings they heard about Irene last year, and they thought it was going to be more of the same—a lot of rain and maybe some choppy tides and things like that, but there wasn’t going to be a Katrina-level surge.”

In fact, the comparisons with Katrina were downright eerie. “In both cases the damage was associated with a tidal surge rather than wind or rain. Another point of comparison is infrastructure. On the Gulf Coast, levees were allowed to fall into disrepair and coastal mangrove forests were cut down, leaving New Orleans “a lot less prepared for a storm of that magnitude than it otherwise would have been.

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“I think similar infrastructure questions are going to emerge about Sandy: Should we be putting the mechanical equipment of coastline buildings in the basement? What sort of building should we be doing on these barrier islands, if any? Do we need to elevate homes, and at what point does elevation change the character of the communities that live there? A lot of the communities that exist there now are full of older people. If new building codes come in that say you’ve got to be 12 feet above the storm surge, you effectively kill the community because no 70-year-old wants to walk up 12 feet of stairs every time they want to get into their house. So the infrastructure debate is going to raise a lot of questions about how and why we build in these vulnerable areas.”

Cesal insists, though, that his organization’s job is not to lecture people on their mistakes. “If I was purely an architect and not a humanitarian, I’d look at the purely technical question of is it a good idea to put a house there, and say yes it is or no it’s not. But it’s not just a technical question. It’s a social question, it’s an emotional question, it’s a trauma question. Part of being able to do disaster work means respecting the fact that you don’t always understand a person’s position. As much disaster work as I have done, I’ll never understand what it’s like to lose my home and my family and my kids and my job in the same day.

“My role is to sit down with them and say, this is what will happen, these are the risks, this is what you will have to do to make your building safe, these are the costs, these are the alternatives, and help them work through to a solution.

“That has always been our ethos as an organization, because a lot of the places we work are not great places to live. Look at Haiti; it’s one of the few places on earth that has earthquakes and hurricanes. An argument could be made that nothing should be built there. But of course we’re not going to do that, right? What we’re going to do is sit down with our clients and say, here are your risks and here’s what you have to do to ameliorate those risks. We’ll help you do what you want. The only lines we draw are that we’re not going to do anything illegal or against building codes, and we’re not going to build anything that is blatantly unsafe.”

Cesal’s job keeps him constantly on the go; so much so that when asked where he lives, he just says “nowhere” and laughs. “I split my time between Haiti and Japan and San Francisco [AFH’s headquarters] and now New York.” But no matter how exhausting or emotionally draining the job gets, he says, he has never thought about quitting.

“The thing about disaster work is that for all it takes out of you, it also restores,” he says. “It’s a cliché that you get to see the best and worst of humanity, but it’s absolutely true. I spend my days in the company of really heroic people who are stepping up and helping their neighbors and surviving things that you and I can’t imagine. You borrow strength from your clients. You watch the grace and strength with which they deal with these problems, and in a way it makes your own life lighter. They’re just inspirational people to work around. Imagine going to an office where every single person inspired you on a daily basis. That’s kind of what my job is like.”

But enough about him. “The point I would emphasize is that this is a long-term reconstruction. It’s going to take a lot of time. In a month’s time, most of these small communities will drop out of the news cycle, but they are still going to be struggling. The life and death of a number of towns and hundreds of thousands of people and tens of thousands of small businesses are in the mix. We have to keep our eyes on it. We can’t let people forget.”