Post Hurricane Sandy: Architects Face Increased Legal Risks

fromWSHU

It's been nearly 10 months since Superstorm Sandy hit the Northeast — and coastal communities are still trying to rebuild. Many homeowners are turning to building professionals to reduce the risk of future floods. But in doing so, architects and designers may be exposing themselves to legal risk.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It has been nearly 10 months since Hurricane Sandy ravaged the Northeast, and many coastal communities there are still trying to rebuild. Some homeowners are turning to professionals, to prepare for the next big storm. Architects and designers might want to help, but doing so can expose them to legal risks. Here's Kaomi Goetz, from member station WSHU.

KAOMI GOETZ, BYLINE: Larysa Chernik and her husband, Ihor, closed on their dream home on a little island off of Westport, Conn., just five months before Sandy hit. Here's how she describes her home's vibe.

LARYSA CHERNIK: Beach Boys meets Frank Sinatra - kind of goofy, bring your surfboard in...

GOETZ: But the good times turned bad after Sandy. The Cherniks returned to a beach house with 44 inches of water in the house.

CHERNIK: Which meant that the whole first floor was just completely shellacked.

GOETZ: The Cherniks lost everything on the first floor. More than 200 homes in Westport were also damaged. But instead of walking away, the Cherniks decided to rebuild.

There was really no way to just repair it the way it was. If we were going to do anything, we needed to lift it.

The Cherniks turned to Bridgeport architect David Barbour for help. But rebuilding any structure one block from Long Island Sound is risky. Barbour says he always advises clients about what might happen.

DAVID BARBOUR: There's danger. There really is danger. But this is a unique community. I think part of it's the fact that it's an island, people are close. They want to live here.

GOETZ: Increasingly, homeowners like the Cherniks are putting their faith in architects and engineers to beat the odds. But building professionals themselves are treading new ground. Just last month, federal officials came out with new flood maps that dictate how high residents need to elevate homes. Sandy has also changed how homes are supported. To add to the confusion, some local zoning regulations aren't in line with the federal rules.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAMMERING)

GOETZ: For the Cherniks, Barbour raised the structure on a reinforced, 7-foot concrete wall on one side and made other improvements.

BARBOUR: When we're done with the framing of this, you'll see metal strapping that goes from the foundation and wraps up over the roof, to hold the buildings down.

GOETZ: In most instances, Barbour tried to exceed federal regulations for safety. But that's still no guarantee. And if these rebuilt homes don't survive, people might sue. Michael Gerrard directs the Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University. He says with climate change and rising sea levels now widely predicted, malpractice lawsuits may be on the horizon.

MICHAEL GERRARD: Sandy made it clear the magnitude of hazards that some of our buildings and other infrastructure have. So architects and engineers and builders are now on even greater notice than they were before.

GOETZ: And Gerrard says these lawsuits could be successful. He cites a case in New Orleans where the Army Corps of Engineers potentially was liable for billions of dollars over a faulty canal that caused damage during Hurricane Katrina.

GERRARD: The case was ultimately dismissed on a legal technicality, but I think that that case highlighted the vulnerability of other entities for this kind of litigation.

GOETZ: Barbour carries some liability insurance but admits it's a new reality for his profession. As for Larysa Chernik, she knows she can't control the environment.

CHERNIK: And we've done the best that we can with, you know, the best information that we have. If it happens again and it - we'll have to see.

GOETZ: The Cherniks hope to move back into their rebuilt home this fall.

For NPR News, I'm Kaomi Goetz.

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