Design infrastructure for a speedy recovery - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Design infrastructure for a speedy recovery

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If misery loves company, there's plenty of company in North America lately. The hundreds of thousands of victims of Hurricane Harvey in southeast Texas can look to the millions of Hurricane Irma survivors in Florida, Georgia, Cuba and the Caribbean Islands for company. Hurricane Maria portends even more misery for Puerto Rico.  Not to be left out, Mexico has had Hurricane Katia at the same time as their largest earthquake in the last 100 years followed days later by another deadly quake near Mexico City. Meanwhile, across the Western United States, wildfires have destroyed millions of acres of forests and created unsafe breathing conditions for millions of downwind residents.

You might start thinking that nature is coming unraveled.

The speed of recovery underpins the National Institute for Standards and Technologies’ (NIST) Community Resilience Planning Guide. The document guides communities to determine recovery times for essential community facilities such as hospitals, schools, and essential retail facilities. For example, some roads may need to be rebuilt first for a community to meet its goal for quick recovery of the regional trauma hospital.

Yet in each case, it didn't have to be this way. The impact of the storms, fires and earthquakes and the long, slow slog to recovery is due to the choices we have made in the design standards and building codes that we use to protect our cities and infrastructure. 

This is no slam on emergency services personal or even disaster response and recovery staff. They are heroes who help to protect us and willingly wade into difficult situations to guide us during these extreme events. And we have been doing much better with building codes, technology and procedures that can provide early warnings to at-risk populations.

Yet we can do better. As we rebuild the billions of dollars of buildings and infrastructure that have been damaged we should prioritize not only safety threats, but the recovery speed of our designs. Let’s prioritize a faster recovery from the next disaster by strategically rebuilding this time.

Fast recovery is important because slow recovery is when the misery sets in. Fast recovery means we get back to work, school and family life with less economic impact. Fast recovery especially aids those of us who aren’t in government: property owners, renters, employees, and families who must navigate arcane forms and procedures, plunder our savings and credit and apply for permits and loans in order to bounce back.

It is not just the size and extent of the disaster that causes long recoveries: In normal day-to-day business we typically design infrastructure and buildings to resist a storm or earthquake of a certain size. Yet when the next extreme event exceeds that design threshold, then we are stuck.  Our systems start to break and they aren’t designed to come back fast. While emergency managers and first responders help us immensely at first, it is after the initial response that we begin the long, slow, miserable process to fix everything that was damaged. 

Nobody likes to think much about disasters.  It makes us nervous and we can feel powerless.  That’s understandable: it's human nature to want to ignore these long-term risks. But we can and should expect more from ourselves.  By building roads, bridges, wires, and pipes that are brittle, we have unwittingly shifted the misery to the survivors.

It doesn't need to be this way.

As we rebuild we need to prioritize our systems to recover more quickly the next time an extreme event exceeds a design threshold. We need to require that our engineers, architects and planners select solutions that will facilitate faster recovery for all of us. 

Designing for quicker recovery does not need to cost more.

When engineers and architects design infrastructure and buildings with recovery speed as part of their scope of work, then they will evaluate broader design options that are quickest to recover. Sometimes that may mean making it unbreakable.  But often it may mean making it easily replaceable with replaceable parts held in storage, or waterproof, or floatable, or any other myriad of options once the challenge is clear. 

Yet right now we don't ask for that.  If we do, then we will reduce the misery, reduce the disruption and reduce the cost for recovery. Who would be against that?

This need to consider speed to recovery in how we rebuild our buildings and infrastructure becomes even more important when the reality of climate change fully sinks into our national psyche. We used to think that the climate was stable and if we just understood the size of the worst extreme event over the last 100 years, then we'd select that as a threshold for performance. Yet uncertainties from climate change make the probability of extreme events incalculable.  What scientists do know is that we’ll get more extreme events more often. What we don’t know is how extreme or how often.  The bottom line is that we can no longer rely on the last 100 years of weather as a failsafe guide because the climate is already shifting all around us.

Applying recovery time to infrastructure and buildings should not be limited to disaster recovery.  It can just as easily be applied to ALL infrastructure and building spending for all governments.  Every year in the United States cities, counties, states and utilities spend billions of dollars of their annual budgets to build and maintain infrastructure.  That daily spending - particularly for larger projects - ought to also require consideration of recovery time so that every dollar we spend begins to hard-wire resilience and speedy recovery into our everyday spending.

Applied year in and year out to current spending we can begin to reduce the "externality" of suffering and distress that falls on the shoulders of every impacted owner, renter, business and family.  With infrastructure designed to recover more quickly, we needn’t spend a penny more to reduce the misery, disruption and cost for recovery.

Steve Moddemeyer is a Principal at CollinsWoerman, an architecture and planning firm based in Seattle, Washington. He works nationally and internationally to advise governments and property owners on implementation strategies that lead to affordable, resilient and sustainable buildings and infrastructure. He serves on the National Academies of Sciences Roundtable on Risk, Resilience, and Extreme Events. Moddemeyer is a member of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Commission on Ecosystem Management Resilient Theme group, an Adviser to the University of Washington Masters in Infrastructure Planning and Management, and an Adviser to the Evergreen College Center for Sustainable Infrastructure.

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