Disaster discussions

December 2013 » Departments » COMMENT
Bob Drake

The Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) announced in late November that it expected to beat a Dec. 1 deadline for reopening all highways damaged or destroyed by flooding in September. That remarkable task required restoration of 485 miles of roadway, CDOT said.

Rebuilding the state's roads was a necessary first step in flood recovery. However, like many recent natural disasters – including Hurricane Sandy in 2012; Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in early November; and tornadoes in Oklahoma in May and in Illinois, Missouri, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin on Nov. 17 – restoring homes, businesses, and "normal" life can take years. While affected residents and government leaders often are quick to proclaim boldly that they will rebuild, that understandable desire might best be qualified with the word "smarter."

"When a disaster happens, people feel pressure to rebuild things just as they were before, when in fact a disaster should be a time when there is a pause, when we ask, ‘How can we build it back better than it was before?'" said Kathleen Tierney, professor of sociology and director of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado Boulder. "We don't lack knowledge to prevent and prepare for disaster. What we lack is the application of that knowledge in the real world. And the gap between what is known and what is actually incorporated into practice is a pretty big gap, unfortunately."

In "Defeating disaster," Mickey Sullivan, P.E., regional vice president with Gresham, Smith and Partners, outlines strategies for engineering more resilient cities. "Each time we design a new project, update a municipal plan, or write new building codes and zoning ordinances, we have a chance to take action and build in safeguards against future disaster," Sullivan writes. "To be most effective, this action should be both fine-grained and universal, integrated into projects large and small, across disciplines and throughout a city."

A World Bank report – "Building Resilience: Integrating Climate and Disaster Risk into Development" – released in November, makes a similar point. It calls for governments and the international development community "to work across disciplines and sectors to build long-term resilience, reduce disaster risk, and avoid unmanageable future costs."

In "Building a vision of our future" (Beyond Words), Professor Dr Uwe Krueger, CEO of Atkins, addresses the world's rapid urbanization and the attendant problems of energy, water and wastewater management, transportation, public health, and resilience. "Dealing with these issues needs holistic thinking, imagination, and cooperation between engineers, scientists, planners, behavioral experts, and others," he says. And civil engineers have an important part to play in this future: "We can amass knowledge, teams, and tools," Krueger writes, "but it will mean nothing unless we exert our influence as we are already starting to do at the heart of the strategic planning debate for future cities. … We have an opportunity to shape the smart cities debate and many in our sector are already doing this."

On a related note, the Transportation Research Board announced that its 93rd Annual Meeting in January will include more than 16 sessions and workshops that examine the increased frequency and severity of weather events and explore how transportation agencies can prepare for, respond to, and recover from extreme weather events. Sessions and workshops will consider the issue from the perspective of planning, operations, maintenance, adaptation, resiliency, safety, critical infrastructure, emergency evacuations, modeling, freight, transit, ports and inland waterways, and business continuity. Get more information at www.trb.org/AnnualMeeting2014/AnnualMeeting2014.aspx

Bob Drake
bdrake@zweigwhite.com

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