Creating Sustainable Infrastructure in the Face of Extreme Weather

To help ensure resiliency during extreme weather, communities have realized the need for sustainable critical infrastructure.

by I.S.K. Reeves / February 10, 2014
New York City after Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Photo courtesy of Geoff Stearns/Flickr

Communities throughout the United States have been faced with unique climatic conditions over the past several years, some of the most dramatic and destructive being hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires and floods.

All in all, the past two years have had some of the most extreme storms to hit the country. In October 2012, Superstorm Sandy hit the Northeast with such power it was later declared the second-costliest hurricane in U.S. history with damages estimated to be more than $68 billion. There was the EF-5 tornado that tore through Oklahoma in May 2013, killing 24 people and clearing a path 1.3 miles wide and 17 miles long. In June 2013, 19 firefighters were killed battling a blaze outside Phoenix, Ariz., that raged for nearly two weeks. In August 2013, one of the largest wildfires in California's history threatened Yosemite National Park and burned through more than 235,000 acres. In September 2013, torrential rains fell in Colorado dumping 17 inches in some parts of the state and destroying more than 1,500 homes.

To protect citizens and help ensure community resiliency during these extreme weather events, federal officials and state and local communities have realized the need for sustainable critical infrastructure. Critical infrastructure includes systems and assets, whether physical or virtual, so vital to the community that the incapacity or destruction of such systems and assets would have a debilitating impact on the security, economy, public health or safety, or any combination of those matters.

The concept of community resiliency evolves from the need for sustainable, survivable infrastructure. It includes the need to strengthen existing buildings and systems such as roadways and bridges, electrical power, water and sanitary distribution, and communications systems. It also includes the design and/or identification of redundant pathways for infrastructure systems, and in the case of flood-prone areas, the relocation or elevation of living and working space within existing utility corridors and building structure.

To meet this need and provide communities with a central organizing and communication point before, during and after a natural or man-made disaster, communities not only need a designated emergency operations center (EOC), but they also need to have an EOC that operates 24/7, can accommodate at least a dozen state agencies in a central command center, includes state-of-art technology, and has a hardened infrastructure that can withstand more than 250 mph wind loads and redundant systems that will sustain the facility for a minimum of 72 hours.

The technology planning for these types of facilities is key to the public safety staff's success in operating these facilities while responding to an event. Communications with outside agencies and the general public as well as receiving information from other agencies depends on utility providers for general phone and Internet connectivity. It is imperative to provide diverse connectivity from multiple providers who, ideally, arrive at the building from different roads, directions and different points in the city or county from where the building resides. In addition to the commercial providers, a prepared facility will also enlist ham radio operators who can provide communications to the outside world if utility connectivity is lost.

Audio visual and voice data planning is essential to the successful dissemination of information to agency responders and event staff. Communication of event situations graphically, textually and audibly is a prerequisite to a successful operation. Each of these systems will require detailed planning for power and connectivity to maintain the lines of quick, efficient communications.

Security is an important consideration for the facility and staff. Security starts with the exterior site and moves into the facilities in layers. The security system provides adequate protection of the EOC staff and emergency responding agencies to allow them to do their jobs without disruption. The design should include crime prevention through environmental design concepts to take advantage of as many passive security measures as possible. Electronic access control and video surveillance should also be deployed to provide enhanced detection and monitoring.

The EOC should be configured to eliminate nonessential pedestrian traffic or at least have the capabilities to do so under emergency operations. Consideration should be given to limiting the number of entrances (consistent with life safety codes), and providing for a reception area that’s screened from the main part of the EOC.

There should be areas of secured parking to ensure that key personnel have a place to park their vehicles and enter the building without the threat of the general public blocking access or taking their space during emergency operations. From this point there should be safe secure passage to the building entrance point for a 24/7 operation.

Surviving the "10,000-Year Storm"

Surviving the “10,000-year storm” is what the Monroe County, Fla., Board of Commissioners and its Department of Emergency Management had in mind when they embarked on a program to establish a new, stand-alone EOC.

As a result of its unique location on the island of Marathon, situated halfway between Key West and Key Largo, the facility is designed to face storm forces of a magnitude greater than those typically impacting an EOC structure. To compound the complexity of the project, the state, through the Division of Emergency Management, mandated that the structure be capable of withstanding forces beyond those of a Category 5 storm or even the greater storm designation of “near absolute” by introducing a new criteria designated as the “10,000-year storm” or, as the expression goes, “off the scale.”

Criteria included storm surge waves of 18 to 20 feet, flooding over the island for a sustained period, as well as wind loading of 205 mph and 225 mph for a three-second gust.

This structure is elevated 23 feet above the existing grade of 100 feet and is situated on a base pad approximately four feet above grade, creating an area utilized for the protection of emergency response vehicles during relatively minor storm events. To achieve access to the elevated building, vertical circulation elements had to be protected from the hydrostatic pressure of storm surge waves, as well as the sustained wind loading, to provide a safe means of access and/or egress.

While Florida has a long history of hurricanes and tornadoes spun off from strong thunderstorms, the premise of protection from large storm surges — such as Hurricane Katrina that produced a storm surge of 20 to 30 feet in Florida in 2005 — is being realized as a real threat. Such a demand results in unique structural elements; a premise we can only understand when we envision a series of 20-foot waves repeatedly striking a building over a sustained period. It is, in that respect, difficult to envision such a magnitude of impact upon a building, much less to design for it.

Technology Systems and Redundancy

Similar to redundancy needs for whole communities, there’s a need to design redundancy in the EOC for all critical power, data, security, communications and audio visual systems.

In the case of an EOC located on an island, the mandate of survivability is the need to not only have the building survive, but to have it remain fully operational as the island floods. This mandated the inclusion of dual emergency generators, each fully capable of providing 100 percent of electrical demand, based on the learned experience that emergency generators, when placed in continued operations over a sustained period, have demonstrated a regrettable propensity to fail. The loss of electrical service, even for a short duration, quickly renders a facility unusable, particularly in structures that are entirely sealed, with no natural light, nor natural air movement. These are expensive decisions, which are difficult for taxpayers and the general public to accept when we are in a period of economic stress, yet imperative if the facility is to be capable of functioning for its intended and critical purpose.

With this structure, Monroe County both addresses the unique criteria related to its geographical location, as well as providing emergency services during periods of extreme weather. This building endeavors to address protection and survivability issues in an appropriate, secure and cost-effective manner.

I.S.K. Reeves is the president of Architects Design Group, a national architecture firm that specializes in the design of public safety and emergency operations centers.

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