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A Window of Opportunity: Rebuilding the Right Way

Much of today’s infrastructure needs rebuilding. What needs to be done before catastrophe strikes?

America’s GPA with regard to the state of critical infrastructure — roads, bridges, dams, drinking water, hazardous waste — is about a 1.3, equivalent to a grade of D+, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). It will take trillions of investment dollars to rebuild. Those costs are magnified if you acknowledge the trend of more intense natural disasters and the promise of more damage, largely from wind and water.

The solution isn’t neat and tidy or easy, but with forward thinking, it presents opportunity. The Smarter- Safer coalition, composed of more than 30 groups, including major insurance companies, addressed the problem in an April 2015 report that says the U.S. must spend more money on infrastructure protection pre-disaster instead of wasting so much money rebuilding after an emergency happens.

It’s a concept that’s beginning to resonate, especially after events like Hurricane Sandy. Many experts agree that investments in more resilient infrastructure and an acknowledgment of infrastructure as a system are critical to viable long-term recovery.

‘Tactical, Political Compromise’

The ASCE says it would take more than $3.5 trillion to upgrade all U.S. infrastructure to decent working order by 2020. That figure grows when you add disasters, waste, fraud and inflation. And it seems most policymakers take a stand on the issue only after being hit hard by an emergency like a hurricane.

“The majority of policymakers are not leaders; they will follow the direction of the prevailing wind,” said Aris Papadopoulos, the former CEO of Titan America. Papadopoulos was at the World Trade Center on 9/11, and after retiring from the construction business, he made resiliency a personal mission. “The private sector will have to lead in collaboration with a few policymakers who make it their agenda and bring the spotlight over on this problem.”

The critical infrastructure — transportation, water supply and the like — need attention, but housing and light commercial buildings are another major area of need, and one that has been neglected to the detriment of the country, Papadopoulos said.

Building codes were developed as a sort of minimum requirement and are not at all adequate to protect residents or people in light commercial buildings.

“Building codes are a product of tactical, economic and political compromise and the lowest denominator of protection,” Papadopoulos said. “In the U.S. we practice a fragmented, inconsistent and often outdated system of building codes, which unfortunately allows special interests to keep the bar as low as possible.”

The bar is far higher for large commercial buildings, but those only account for around 20 percent of the nation’s built environment, with homes and light commercial making up the rest. “We’re saving lives but losing livelihoods, particularly homes, the nest eggs for most people’s wealth,” he said. “We’re designing and building below the hazard levels and hoping the hazard doesn’t hit.”

The rate of losses resulting from disasters is escalating at an alarming pace. Globally the figure averages about $300 billion a year, which is more than the gross domestic product of 80 percent of the world’s nations, according to Papadopoulos. The U.S. leads with the worst losses in the decade between 2000 and 2009, with an average of $35 billion a year, a figure greater than the total losses of the next nine countries combined. Things have gotten worse since 2009, and the trend is projected to continue.

Papadopoulos called climate change a “convenient alibi to explain away what we wish to avoid exploring in more depth. In reality, the predicted impacts of climate change still lie ahead of us,” he said. “Just imagine how much worse things could get several decades from now once climate change really kicks in.”

Builders must embrace safety, much like carmakers embraced vehicle safety features decades ago after initially fighting them. They could build “fortified” or “code plus” homes. The Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety came up with the fortified rating and has a state-of-the-art facility for testing homes. “Why shouldn’t Zillow include that kind of information in their database?” Papadopoulos asked.  

He said the government should admit that building codes, especially in residential and small commercial structures, don’t protect property and owners should upgrade to code plus.

The government is incentivizing green construction, but that doesn’t protect property from a disaster. The two should go hand in hand, said Cathleen Kelly, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. “More permeable roads, more green infrastructure to absorb heavy rainfall and restoring coastal areas are all hugely beneficial,” she said.

System of Systems

And then there are the interdependencies that connect certain infrastructures and complicate things when disasters strike. For example, infrastructure that pumps water may be dependent on the electrical grid, but when the power goes out during a disaster, other infrastructure, including the water pumping system, may be affected.

Thus various infrastructures need to be thought of more holistically. “If you’re doing post-disaster planning, you really have to think from a context of multisystem engagement and multisystem prioritization,” said Bob Prieto, senior vice president of Fluor, a global engineering construction company. That means those running the power system need to be cognizant of the priorities of restoring power to certain facilities.


The American Society of Civil Engineers has ranked the state of the country's critical infrastructure a D+ and estimates it would cost more than $3.5 trillion to upgrade all infrastructure to decent working order by 2020.

It also means building infrastructure with a larger system in mind, not just buildings, and thinking of infrastructure more holistically. This is especially true in transportation, and there are committees beginning to work on the tools necessary for that to happen, Prieto said. “I would suggest that we really need to think about infrastructure in the post-disaster context as a system of systems.”

As a first step, Prieto said it’s important to understand the core competencies and capabilities of each infrastructure system and then take that thinking to the next level by recognizing their interdependencies.

Fred Krimgold, director of the Disaster Risk Reduction Program and a faculty member of the Advanced Research Institute at Virginia Tech, said sectors like transportation, energy, water and communications are aware of the consequences of failure of their own systems but not what happens “downstream.” “Up in New Jersey and New York after Sandy, a big problem was fuel shortage, not because they didn’t have fuel but because they didn’t have electric power.” All the fuel was in tanks in the ground and had to be pumped electrically.

Krimgold worked with a small Virginia city of around 50,000 to demonstrate the cascading failures that can happen when one infrastructure system shuts down. GIS capability showed the connectedness of the electric power system and the water system via overlays of system maps. “The guys from the water department and the guys from the power utility were able to identify points of dependency.”

The two entities were then able to sit down and negotiate potential solutions, Krimgold said. “For example, do you need to upgrade if this is a single feed and a very high-priority pump in the water system? Should you do a double feed that is fed from another substation?”

The understanding of infrastructure as a system of systems, Prieto said, is beginning to resonate, along with the idea that rebuilding the same structures after a disaster is unacceptable. “We’re past the denial stage. We’re at the recognition stage, and I would call it a growing articulation of things that need to be done.”

The ASCE recently moved to establish a goal that would cut the life cycle costs of new infrastructure to half of today’s prices. There are a lot of reasons for that, Prieto said, including the fact that we can’t afford all the infrastructure we need or the repairs that will eventually be required. “It’s not just about building it cheaper in the first instance. It’s about adopting a life cycle view of building something that when all costs are considered is more capital efficient.”

There’s a recognition that infrastructure standards were written for individual buildings, not with infrastructure systems in mind, especially where transportation is concerned. Prieto said there’s beginning to be some work done to develop tools that address the need for a new approach.  

Kelly also sees the acknowledgment of the interconnectedness of infrastructure as critical to developing resilience, as is the understanding that more destructive natural disasters are expected in the future. “There are so many interconnections between the different sectors when it comes to resilience and the snowball effect that can occur when one system goes out,” she said. When the cell towers were down during Hurricane Sandy, for example, residents didn’t know where emergency facilities were and how to get from point A to point B.

Flooding and wind are the main threats to infrastructure systems, according to Papadopoulos. “When you look at the history of insurance losses, wind and water [cause] probably close to 75 to 80 percent of losses,” he said. “Unfortunately the U.S. spent considerable resources on earthquake hazards.” And although earthquakes happen, he explained, they are much less frequent, and the cumulative effect is a small fraction of what is lost to water and wind.  

Building Sustainably

There are signs of progress. Unfortunately it usually happens after a major incident. Following Sandy, the federal government set up a rebuilding task force led by former U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan. That led to a process throughout the region of thinking about rebuilding in a more integrated, strategic way.

Costs Will Grow as Storm Trends Continue

The frequency, severity and cost of disasters like hurricanes, floods, fires and heat waves continue to grow and federal spending on recovery is unsustainable. According to the SmarterSafer Coalition, a group that includes major insurance companies, property damage from disasters has averaged $24 billion per year since 2004, compared to an annual average of $9 billion from 1995 to 2003.

But that hasn’t stopped people from moving into disaster-prone areas. A 2014 Reuters investigation found that 2.2 million new housing units were constructed in coastal areas between 1990 and 2010. And coastal properties take a disproportionate toll on the National Flood Insurance Program. In Massachusetts, for example, just 150 properties in the town of Scituate accounted for 40 percent of the $60 million in flood insurance payouts since 1978.

The costs will only grow. The Natural Resources Defense Council estimated that floods could cost the country up to $360 billion in damaged residential properties and hurricane damage could exceed $420 billion by 2100.

Mayor Bill de Blasio released a new plan in April called One New York City: The Plan for a Strong and Just City, which builds on the efforts former Mayor Michael Bloomberg began to develop a sustainable and resilient city.

The federal government has taken steps to push for an acknowledgment of climate trends in future planning agendas, such as the executive order issued by President Obama in November 2013 directing federal agencies to assess the risks of climate change to their assets, programs and grants to make sure investments go toward resiliency.

“That will ensure that all federal agency investments in infrastructure will be designed with the acknowledgment that climate change is happening, namely flooding,” Kelly said. “Otherwise we’re talking about investing taxpayer dollars on infrastructure that is right in the path of floodwaters and it’s not going to last for its intended lifespan. It’s a waste of taxpayer money.”

The Regional Plan Association uses scenario planning as a tool to develop plans. The concept is to consider a number of options that might occur in the future. “The idea is you don’t just plan for the storm that just happened; you know the future is uncertain and that any number of things might happen,” said Robert Freudenberg, director of the association’s Division of Energy and Environment. “You choose a range of scenarios that are likely to happen and start thinking through each of those.”

For instance, three scenarios to rebuilding coastal communities would be: one, that things stay the same; two, that big investments could be made to prepare for climate change; and three, that people are going to have to relocate away from coastal communities.

“By doing that it gives you the sense of all the steps you need to take and all the partners you need to involve,” Freudenberg said. He called it kind of a “time out” from the urge to rebuild quickly, which has happened so often and with mixed results. “There’s a window of opportunity to think differently after a disaster, and unfortunately a disaster is often the motivating factor for thinking differently,” he said. “That starts to wear off after a while and things go back to business as usual.”

During that window of opportunity, it’s important to resist the urge to build back too quickly without foresight, which is often the tendency and sometimes pushed by politicians in the aftermath of a disaster. “You saw with the New Jersey Shore: There was such a focus on just getting that back in time for the next summer season that things were done quickly and poorly, and one of the projects burned down completely it was done so quickly,” Freudenberg said.

Sandy forced some in the region to recognize the possibility of more ominous storms, but sea-level rise is really starting to drive that acknowledgment home, he said. “It’s not just the big storm disaster where we’re recognizing we’re going to have to change the way we live or at least respond to the forces that exist beyond us on a high-tide basis.”

Seventy-Five Years Ahead

In the community of Anacortes, Wash., officials saw an aging water treatment plant and took a futuristic approach to replacing it. Public Works Director Fred Buckenmeyer had attended an unrelated symposium on climate change and came away with the realization that things in the future relating to the water supply will be shifting.

So when it came time for the community to invest in a new treatment plant, Buckenmeyer considered what the situation might look like in 75 years. Anacortes invested in a $65 million redesign of the treatment plant, incorporating state-of-the-art design that takes into account the effects of climate change.

The new facility is 25 feet higher than the old one, all the electrical gear is built above the 100-year flood plain and everything below that is built with water-tight construction. The old plant was 50 feet wide, several hundred feet long and looked like a giant ice cube tray. The new one is compact. There’s also a redundant power system.

“The old system is built for 20 million gallons a day, and the new system is built for 57 million gallons a day and occupies a third of the footprint,” Buckenmeyer said.

The new system was built to facilitate the removal of an increasing amount of sediment from the local Skagit River, thought to be one of the impacts of a warming climate. Studies show that the amount of water in the river isn’t expected to change, but will come at different times of the year and more so in rain than snow, which will increase the sediment load. “We’re going to get more floods and higher floods,” Buckenmeyer said.

Residents are already dealing with it. “The river used to come up about once a year, and we maybe had to sandbag around the facility once every five years,” Buckenmeyer said. “That’s changing to like five times a year now.”

The plant has been in operation for about two years, and its worth has been proven already. “We had a high river event last winter,” Freudenberg recalled. “And what normally would have been a major risk event where we would have had 100 volunteers filling sandbags and the Army Corps of Engineers on site was just another day.”