BY EVA KAPLAN-LEISERSON
It’s not a quirk of media coverage that more natural disasters have been appearing in the news. The frequency and intensity of extreme weather events are increasing, confirms the new National Climate Assessment released in May. The report, from more than 300 experts overseen by a federal advisory committee, links these events with climate change and warns that the country is already seeing the effects.
As extreme events become more common, awareness is growing about the importance of resilience—or, broadly, the ability to prepare for and recover from disasters. The professional engineering community is just one group taking action.
NSPE has joined more than 20 other design and construction industry groups to endorse a statement on resilience developed by the American Institute of Architects and the National Institute of Building Sciences. AIA and NIBS drew up the statement after a robust discussion at a summit the two groups held last year, to show lawmakers and the public the seriousness with which the design, construction, and planning sectors are taking the issue.
Industry groups contributed feedback, much of which was incorporated. The statement was released May 13 at an event at the National Building Museum in Washington, DC. (May is Building Safety Month, launched by the International Code Council and now celebrated by groups worldwide. The 2014 theme is “Building Safety: Maximizing Resilience, Minimizing Risks.”)
The statement notes that both natural and manmade hazards pose an increasing threat to the public’s safety and nation’s vitality. “Aging infrastructure and disasters result in unacceptable losses of life and property,” it continues. The signatories “recognize that contemporary planning, building materials, and design, construction, and operational techniques can make our communities more resilient to these threats.”
The statement asserts that promotion of resilience will improve the economic competitiveness of the US, because disaster response is expensive. “Our practices must continue to change, and we commit ourselves to the creation of new practices in order to break the cycle of destruction and rebuilding,” it reads.
The signatories—including NSPE, the American Society of Civil Engineers, and the American Council of Engineering Companies—commit to improving the resilience of the nation’s buildings, infrastructure, public spaces, and communities through research, education, advocacy, response, and planning.
Says NSPE President Robert A. Green, P.E., F.NSPE, “Professional engineers hold the public’s health, safety, and welfare paramount and taking this first step to encourage resilience in the built environment is an obvious extension of those values. NSPE looks forward to working with the other…organizations to promote this effort.”
This is the first time industry groups have come together on such a document. “Together, our organizations are committed to build a more resilient future,” it states.
An Expanded Definition
The industry statement describes resilience as “the ability to prepare and plan for, absorb, recover from, and more successfully adapt to adverse events.” Others offer a slightly different definition. William Anderson, director and COO of The Infrastructure Security Partnership (TISP), which aims to improve the resilience of the nation’s infrastructure, also stresses the importance of mitigation. The definition his group uses for resilience is “the capacity to absorb or mitigate the impacts of hazard events while maintaining and restoring critical services.”
TISP, a nonprofit organization bringing together the engineering, architecture, and construction communities, was originally established after September 11 to address infrastructure security. But early on, the group recognized the importance of planning for natural hazards as well.
Anderson describes six elements that make up resilience:
Identifying and understanding critical operations and functions;
Anticipating impacts of multihazard events;
Preparing for and adapting to manage a crisis or disruption as it unfolds;
Creating the capacity to rapidly return to and/or reconstitute a more resilient, normal operation;
Tolerating loss of some capacity for the duration of the response effort; and
Partnering through communications, coordination, and collaboration.
Mohammed Ettouney, P.E., a resilience expert who has assisted the Department of Homeland Security and the State of New York, offers these components of resilience from the DHS’s definition: robustness, resourcefulness, recovery (or rapid recovery), and redundancy (of systems).
Engineers have a role in each of the four Rs, Ettouney says. But a common mistake is just focusing on one. “You will have to be well balanced,” he continues. “Otherwise you will have a problem.”
The PE, principal at structural engineering firm Weidlinger Associates, categorizes resilience as a subset of risk, where risk mainly looks at costs but resilience focuses on continuity of operations and recovery.
One thing experts agree resilience is not: building back exactly what existed previously. Instead, they say, it is an opportunity to improve.
A Growing Awareness
Resilience has been gaining the attention of key groups for years. Says Ettouney, “Maybe 9/11 was the wake-up call.”
But events such as Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy have continued to bring the issue to the forefront. As the human and financial costs of disasters have mounted, people have taken notice.
Ettouney notes that the financial costs include not only rebuilding but also loss of operations. He describes how his office in the middle of the financial district in Manhattan was shut down for an entire week after Sandy. “That’s not acceptable,” he says.
The professional engineer believes that the issue is gaining traction because stakeholders realize the price of inaction. “People are moving on their own,” he says. “Government organizations are realizing that they can’t really sit down and do nothing because the next [disaster] could be more costly.”
Jessica Watts, P.E., a water resources engineer whose projects have incorporated elements of resilience since she began her career in New Orleans post-Katrina, sees slow and steady progress on the issue. (The professional engineer also serves on the board of advisors for the annual Building Resilience Workshop, which focuses on coastal communities.) “It’s being talked about more than there’s movement,” she says, “but there is movement.”
The Engineering Response
Watts believes that the topic of resilience affects almost every aspect of engineering. “Resiliency, like sustainability, should be built into every project,” she says.
Joe Manous, P.E., manager at the Institute for Water Resources with the US Army Corps of Engineers, agrees. Winner of a TISP award for leadership in resiliency, he believes resilience should be another one of an engineer’s design standards, not an end to itself. “We should consider resilience just like we consider live loading or corrosion resistance,” the NSPE member says.
The design community should not only look for opportunities to increase resilience but also take a leadership role in determining acceptable levels, he notes. “We should be the most informed people [about] the possibilities. We need to continue to speak up, get involved with the discussions that set direction—not just with the design community but with the customer base.”
Watts believes that professional engineers’ strength in this arena is the ability to think critically. Engineers can help identify risks, what can be done now to reduce their effects, and what is needed after an event to fully recover, she says. “Sometimes the answer is in stronger or more flexible infrastructure, sometimes the answer is in law and policy, and sometimes the answer is in our collective imagination.”
After Hurricane Katrina, Watts served as task force leader for drainage in a joint project between federal and local groups. The project examined damages and the steps needed to move forward.
In the Greater New Orleans area, Watts looked at a complex sanitary sewer system and recommended which pump stations should be brought back online first to better allocate resources. That kind of planning can be done ahead of time, she says—for instance in a manual that communities or municipalities develop prior to an event.
Preplanning is a huge component of resilience, she says. For instance, one of the larger pump stations in New Orleans had a valve that needed to be closed or water would come back in and flood the station and the city. But it could only be accessed manually outside the station, requiring venturing out into hurricane-force winds.
This illustrates a point that Ettouney emphasizes: the resilience of communities requires the resilience of individual assets. Most people focus on the first type of resilience, he says, but that’s the wrong place to start. Resilient communities depend both on resilient assets and resilient links between those assets, he says.
Ettouney has coined the term “resilience management.” That means more than just assessment of resilience, he says. “That’s only 20% of the equation.”
In addition to resilience assessment, the PE adds these additional steps:
Resilience acceptance: knowing whether the assessed level of resilience is acceptable, who makes that decision, and how. This is probably the most difficult part of resilience management, according to Ettouney, and a subject that’s not well understood.
Resilience mitigation: examining how to improve resilience at a reasonable cost.
Resilience monitoring: reviewing the level of resilience, since it will decrease as variables such as wear and tear, climate change, and societal change affect it. At the same time, expectations for resilience continue to increase, Ettouney says.
Resilience communication: speaking with stakeholders—for instance, government officials, owners, engineers, and the public—about all of the other steps. Often this is an afterthought, says the PE, but that’s a mistake. This step needs to be considered throughout to ensure goals are met.
Another important element for engineers is understanding the way their functions or responsibilities fit into others’, explains Ettouney, saying that he can’t overstate the importance of this. He emphasizes the need for the engineering community to work together with those in other disciplines such as architects, planners, officials, and building and infrastructure managers. This can be difficult, he admits, because different disciplines often talk different languages.
But TISP’s Anderson believes that the issue of resilience can help provide a common language, a common analysis to help people understand needs, and a direction to move in.
Manous also points out the importance of an integrated systems approach, saying engineers should consider aspects outside of their specific project’s purview. Those working on a water project, for instance, also need to think about what’s upstream or downstream, he says. It’s important to examine what is adjacent and consider whether what you’re doing or what someone else is doing will affect the overall outcome and the public’s health, safety, and welfare.
Manous believes resilient design is in its adolescence. He agrees that people are aware of and working on the issue, but thinks it still has a ways to go.
Despite tight budgets and economic woes, he doesn’t believe costs are holding up progress. Instead, he sees a need for a better understanding of performance provided by new types of designs. “No one wants to provide a design without a reasonable understanding for how well it will work,” he says. “We want some reasonable evidence that a design is adequate.”
There may be no proof that a new resilient solution will work as designed, or that the solution is substantially better, he explains, and engineers are hesitant to implement something that’s untested. Answers to those questions require time and research dollars, he says. Once methodologies are better understood, people will be more willing to apply them.
Setting a sufficient level of resilience is also another area that needs additional exploration. (Ettouney’s resilience acceptance.) “If you don’t have an endpoint, any road looks good,” Manous says.
But he’s optimistic. It took decades to develop methodologies for inclusion in the concrete or steel design codes, he notes. “I don’t think [resilience] will take decades, but more than a year. We need to continue to push, need to be impatient, but also need to understand it will take time to move the topic forward.”
Ettouney also believes progress will happen over time, and through some trial and error. It may not happen as fast as it should, he says, but eventually we will have more resilient infrastructure, assets, and communities.