Flood Proof Flooring

How New Orleans Floors Weathered Hurricane Katrina

When Hurricane Katrina tore through New Orleans on Aug. 29, 2005, it took over 1,500 lives. The costliest natural disaster in U.S. history, property damage was estimated at $81.2 billion. Some 80 percent of the city and vast sections of neighboring areas were flooded. Most of the deluge resulted from failure of the city’s levees and flood walls. Salt water surged in, picking up mud, waste, sewage, petroleum, chemicals and acids. The water saturated the city, then stayed, stagnating for weeks afterwards.

Among the massive property losses were most floorings: wood, carpet, ceramic tile and VCT. Terrazzo floors generally survived Katrina intact, though, reported architect Alton Davis of Richard C. Lambert Consultants, leader of the architectural team on Lakefront Airport terminal’s post-Katrina renovation. At the airport, the hurricane left ground level terrazzo floors submerged under four feet of water, furniture and equipment adrift. Once the water subsided, the airport’s newer materials, especially, had sustained damage, Davis noted. None of the drywall installed since the 1960s survived. Even the grid behind the plaster rusted. But, except for a few places where heavy equipment had gouged or cracked the floor and required repair, the terrazzo floors needed no more than a light sanding and polish. One of the earliest and few remaining Art Deco terminals in the U.S., it had been renovated in the 1960s as monolithic, bunker-style fallout shelter. However, damages from the hurricane led to a complete $17-million restoration of the 1934 airport to its original design.

This wasn’t the only example of the durability and flood-water resistance of terrazzo flooring after the hurricane waters subsided. Terrazzo floors around the city were found intact, and many were in older buildings, including the train station terminal. If structural collapse or large equipment falling had chipped or gouged them, these floors were reparable. As in the airport, most required nothing more than polishing and refinishing.

The Re-flooring of New Orleans

Insurance didn’t specify taking out terrazzo after Katrina, recounts Clyde Martin of American Tile & Terrazzo, Co. of Metaire, LA, contractor on the airport renovation. Not only were the floors basically intact, but terrazzo is also extremely difficult to remove, another sign of its durability. In the first wave of rebuilding in the city, many irreparable floors were replaced as quickly and cheaply as possible, mostly with tile, Martin said.

After the first flurry of rebuilding, the next wave of work for Martin’s company was the rehabilitation of terrazzo floors. The city’s convention center was one such major project. Others included churches and schools owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans. The disaster created a serious shortage of general contractors in the area who knew how to schedule a terrazzo restoration project, and architects with experience in specifying such jobs. In response, Martin’s company held an informational box lunch session for the Archdiocese and 30 local architects. “That started the snowball rolling,” Martin said. His company continues to offer these “lunch-and-learn” sessions to GC’s and architects who want to or need to learn more about using terrazzo on their projects.

Lessons Learned: Emerging Trends in Flood Proof Construction

As the ravages of Katrina spotlighted the toughness of terrazzo, it became a flooring of choice for new construction. In one church, the roof and stained glass windows were destroyed, the statues reduced to rubble. All that could be saved were the structural steel, a few brick walls, and the terrazzo floors, Martin said. “It clicked,” he added. “Architects realized that if the only flooring saved from Katrina was terrazzo, we should use it when we build something new.”

New construction post-Katrina followed a new flood proofing trend, based on the materials that had passed the test of the hurricane: metal roof, concrete block, structural steel, and terrazzo floors. Water destroys carpet and vinyl tiles, Martin explained. Ceramic tile is easily broken by falling furniture and equipment and is hard to patch because of UV discoloration. If tile grout is stained, it’s more cost effective to start over. After the flood, with no TV or radio functioning, promotion of terrazzo in reconstruction projects consisted of word of mouth and signs posted everywhere for “FLOOD PROOF FLOORING,” Martin said.