Improving disaster resilience

November 2012 » Departments » COMMENT
Bob Drake

There are forces of nature against which we can't prevail – at least not at a cost we have been willing or able to pay. That was demonstrated dramatically by last month's Hurricane Sandy that devastated the New Jersey shore and flooded parts of New York City and adjacent cities.

Workers quickly set to work dewatering, drying out, and restoring service to New York City's power and transportation infrastructure, including underground electrical substations and subway stations and tunnels. Restoring life-as-usual to surrounding residential areas and the New Jersey shore will be a much slower and more difficult process, which hopefully will involve much thoughtful input and expert advice from civil engineers and other scientists.

It should not just be a question of how to rebuild what was lost, but how to rebuild more resilient and smarter infrastructure – and, in some areas, whether it should be rebuilt at all. "Does it make any sense to rebuild things exactly the same, especially if you believe these 100-year storms aren't 100-year storms anymore?" asked Robert Puentes, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program, in a USA Today article.

News reports immediately following Hurricane Sandy highlighted long-proposed solutions ranging from New Orleans-style flood walls surrounding vulnerable sections of New York City to massive storm surge gates at a cost of more than $10 billion. However, less expensive, smaller-scale efforts may be more realistic.

A report released in August 2012 by the National Academies, "Disaster Resilience: A National Imperative" (, concluded that improving resilience should be seen as a long-term process that can be coordinated around measurable short-term goals that will allow communities to better prepare and plan for, withstand, recover from, and adapt to adverse events. The report identified steps that all communities can take to improve disaster resilience such as adopting and enforcing building codes and standards appropriate to existing local hazards and implementing risk-based pricing for property insurance.

Storm surge from Hurricane Sandy inundated Seaside, N.J.
Photo: New Jersey Governor's Office

In August 2011, 20 experts representing academia, the nonprofit and private sectors, and local, state, and federal government participated in a roundtable "to share ideas about how coastal and waterfront communities could improve quality of life, use land and other resources efficiently, and create environmentally and economically sustainable neighborhoods while minimizing risks from natural hazards related to coastal and waterfront flooding." (Download a summary report at

On Nov. 30, 2012, The National Academies is sponsoring a timely conference in Washington, D.C.: "Disaster Resilience in America: Launching a National Conversation." Participation via free video webcast is available by registering at

Discussion about improving disaster resilience is well underway, and civil engineers need to be involved in the conversation to help turn talk into effective action.

"Without innovations to improve resilience, the cost of disasters will continue to rise both in absolute dollar amounts and in losses to social, cultural, and environmental systems in each community," said Susan L. Cutter, director of the Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute at the University of South Carolina and chair of the committee that wrote the National Academies report. "Enhancing our resilience to disasters is imperative for the stability, progress, and well-being of the nation."

Bob Drake

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