Several High-Profile Disasters Bring A Renewed Focus on Resilient Infrastructure

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The saying goes “April showers bring May flowers,” but here we are at the beginning of June – one day closer to summer vacation and the start of beach season,  and the April showers haven’t stopped. Flooding, along with a plethora of other natural disasters across the country, from Hurricanes Michael and Florence to the California wildfires and devastating tornadoes, have brought the conversation on the need for more resilient infrastructure back to the forefront. Bloomberg covered the importance of infrastructure preparedness after massive amounts of rain and flooding. Curbed took an in-depth look at how Puerto Rico’s infrastructure is faring after its one-year anniversary. On NPR, California Fire Chief Ken Pimlott emphasized the necessity of evacuation routes and stated that our infrastructure must be resilient or at least resist the intensity of fires, in reference to the California wildfires. Our changing climate is contributing to more flooding, powerful tornadoes, and stronger hurricanes.

This past spring, several states saw severe flooding following storms – from Southern California to Texas to the Midwest, flooding has increased because of our changing climate. California is experiencing precipitation whiplash, meaning extreme periods of drought are followed by extreme periods of rainfall. Meanwhile, other parts of the country are experiencing record-breaking floods that the New York Times states are “consistent with the effects of climate change.” These storms are pushing levees and dams to their breaking points. Most infrastructure systems are not currently equipped to handle unpredictable changes. These “D”– rated systems have experienced significant damage. As June started, entire communities in Missouri are flooded after a levee breach forced people to leave their homes. When this happens, trains halt operation and farmers can’t drive their trucks to feed their cattle, forcing them to use a boat versus their trucks.

However, flooding isn’t the only threat testing our nation’s infrastructure and causing significant damage and loss of life and property. AccuWeather reported 516 tornadoes throughout the country during the month of May. Some of these tornadoes tore apart communities and their infrastructure systems. Tornadoes in Oklahoma and Arkansas left residents preparing for possible failure of nearby dams, while 17 tornadoes touched down in Ohio and 80,000 people were left without power.

A Path Forward

As aging infrastructure, climate change, and a growing population become larger concerns, states are pushing for the White House and Congress to agree on an infrastructure package that will allow us to prepare our systems for future disasters. Civil engineers are incorporating innovative, sustainable, and resilient infrastructure solutions into their daily work. We can also learn from past events to prepare for future disasters. In Addressing Flood Risk: A Path Forward for Texas After Hurricane Harvey, the Texas Section of ASCE analyzed flood risk management tactics in the state and gave recommendations to improve for the future. As part of the ASCE Committee on Adaption to a Challenging Climate and Infrastructure Resilience Division, the Society also recently released a Manual of Practice for civil engineers titled Climate-Resilient Infrastructure: Adaptive Design and Risk Management, which provides recommendations and solutions to help civil engineers prepare for the future with resilient infrastructure design.

ASCE develops standards that provide technical guidelines for promoting safety, reliability, productivity, and efficiency in civil engineering. Many of these standards are referenced by model building codes and then adopted by state and local jurisdiction. ASCE 7: Minimum Design Loads and Associated Criteria for Buildings and Other Structures is an integral part of the building codes in the United States, and describes the means for determining dead, live, soil, flood, rain, wind loads, and other factors, as well as their combinations for general structural design. In addition, ASCE 24: Flood Resistant Design and Construction provides minimum requirements for flood-resistant design and construction of structures located in flood hazard areas. We are grateful the President signed the Disaster Reform and Recovery Act in October 2018. This bill funds pre-disaster assistance so we can get ahead of these disasters and prepare for the next one.

In the second half of 2019, we look forward to the work civil engineers are doing to move towards building a resilient infrastructure network.

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