Last September, torrential rains along Colorado’s Front Range Mountains led to catastrophic flooding that covered nearly 2,000 square miles. This unprecedented flash-flooding event caused more than $2 billion in property damage — from Colorado Springs to Fort Collins, including Boulder, northeast Colorado, and parts of the Denver metro area. More than 10,000 people had to be evacuated from their homes and about 200 miles of state highways and 50 state-maintained bridges were impacted, many in challenging mountain terrain.
Immediately following the event, I served as part of a geotechnical engineering team mobilized to help assess the damage and restore access to roads and railroads — as quickly and safely as possible. Responding to natural disasters is an important part of my role, working alongside other engineers and scientists at Shannon & Wilson. While this particular event far exceeded the devastation and long-term impact of most natural disasters, it reinforced several principles I’ve discovered through my involvement in a diverse range of crises.
1. Expect the unexpected — Disasters are never convenient. There’s not a date or time when they seem less intrusive or distressing. But having advance warning can be extremely helpful for allowing individuals, institutions, and municipalities to take necessary precautions, including potentially evacuating a region.
Thanks to ongoing technological advances, we’re able to rapidly assess with greater reliability the consequences of natural hazards as they occur. As an example, social media provides responders of all types the ability to understand precisely what is happening throughout a corridor and to take immediate action to protect other infrastructure and the public.
As we continue honing our ability to monitor trends in historical data, we become increasingly more efficient and proactive in the mitigation and response efforts. Nevertheless, even the most sophisticated climate models and GIS systems will never fully equip us to understand and predict natural hazards and the full range of consequences. Landslides, rockslides, floods, and other natural disasters are likely to continue happening — often without significant advance warning.
2. We’re living in an increasingly infrastructure-dependent world — Most of us rely on cars to transport us to work, buses to take our kids to school, and trucks and trains deliver the bulk of our food and other commercial needs.
And in many cases, infrastructure development is not keeping pace with increases in population and user demand. A highway that accommodated an average of 10,000 vehicles each day in the 1970s may be supporting three times as many vehicles today, with no major upgrades to support that traffic increase.
Given America’s growing reliance on aging roads and railways, the negative economic impact is increasingly more severe when that infrastructure is damaged or disrupted. The direct and indirect consequences are often enormous and far-reaching — coal can’t be delivered to power plants, local businesses are crippled, and the entertainment and tourism industry is devastated.
3. Rebuilding is complex and complicated — In last year’s Colorado flooding, entire sections of U.S. Route 34 west of Loveland were completely destroyed or missing. Those sections of the highway, which is in a very narrow canyon and supported by retaining walls, had to be rebuilt.
The small town of Lyons, in Boulder County, was nearly wiped out entirely. In the span of a couple days, this historic town became completely isolated, with no functioning transportation infrastructure and no functioning wastewater and other utilities. Most of its residents had to leave for several days to weeks until transportation, water, and power were restored.
As our team responded to these devastating scenarios, we faced numerous challenges. Working under a highly compressed schedule, we had to balance the need to restore function to critical infrastructure systems as quickly as possible while preserving the existing infrastructure elements that remained.
And, as in most disaster situations, we had to work with limited access to the full range of construction tools and resources. Concrete and other materials were in short supply and challenging to bring to a site.
While we raced against the clock to bring systems back into operation, we also had to be mindful that the repairs would be resilient. The systems needed to protect the public’s safety for the long term while meeting people’s expectations for aesthetics, comfort, and convenience.
4. Disasters demand unprecedented levels of collaboration — Responding to disaster events requires ongoing collaboration among numerous governmental organizations, corporations, elected officials, and private citizens. Public and private entities that may normally interact sporadically or not at all are suddenly compelled to work together under high-stress, high-stakes conditions.
Effective communication is fundamental to ensure that the numerous stakeholders — all of whom need to move swiftly and decisively — can successfully collaborate to move projects forward as efficiently as possible.
In these urgent situations, it’s always rewarding to see how well the various disciplines and specialties working on a project can cooperate. A conventional design project tends to operate in a more siloed manner, but during a crisis situation, you generally experience more teamwork and don’t have the same disputes you might otherwise have. The professionals who are knowledgeable can simply be empowered to make decisions in the field, with input from other team members.
However, despite the urgency to rebuild and restore functionality to transportation infrastructure, permitting processes and other legislative requirements must continue to be followed. That means working closely with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Fish and Wildlife Service, and other organizations to ensure you’re following procedures and not causing additional damage to the environment.
5. We must proactively plan for the future — If there’s a silver lining to disaster events, it’s that they help serve as a reminder of the importance of managing our aging infrastructure systems on a consistent basis. Because a significant portion of our urban infrastructure network was originally constructed in the 1950s or 1960s, it requires ongoing maintenance and expansion to keep pace with demand.
On a much smaller and simpler scale, it is similar to the need to change the oil and rotate the tires on your car or risk a mechanical breakdown. While the vehicle will eventually need to be replaced, it is likely to last much longer and be more reliable if those maintenance procedures are followed consistently.
Yet, many states and municipalities lack the resources or tools to proactively manage their roads, bridges, and utilities. That’s why we need to promote a greater understanding of the total life cycle costs of infrastructure projects. We must make long-term decisions based on the fact that the initial construction cost usually represents a small percentage of the total cost to maintain a project throughout its life.
A life cycle perspective should influence and be considered at all stages of a project — from allocating a budget to planning, design, and maintenance decisions.
During a disaster, most of the attention is focused on the speed of rebuilding, which is completely understandable. But we also can make decisions during traditional design and maintenance activities that will create efficiency and savings over the life cycle. This involves, for example, considering the layout of infrastructure relative to the hazards, the materials and resources used, and the long-term maintenance plans.
Just as our team continues to learn important lessons from each disaster response project we assist, it’s important that our cities, states, and nation do the same to mitigate the negative human and economic impact of future events that may occur.
Mark Vessely, P.E., M.ASCE, is vice president, geotechnical engineering, at Shannon & Wilson, based in Denver. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.