Trinity Episcopal Church used to sit on short concrete piers, about 4 feet above grade and 14 feet above sea level in Pass Christian, Miss. But when Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast in August 2005, the 26-foot-deep storm surge left Trinity under more than 12 feet of water — enough to wash away the walls and another two buildings on church grounds, and enough to destroy the middle school across the street. Somehow, the building’s floor system, laminated arch framework, and roof survived virtually intact.

After the storm, an engineer who checked out the building feared that the frame had been too badly racked to be repaired, and he recommended that the church be demolished. But members of the church’s building committee weren’t so sure and asked my company to take a closer look. It was true that all but one of the arches were out of plumb, but my...

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