House of Brick: Disaster Resilience in the Face of 100-Year Events

How can communities be better prepared to withstand and recover from 100-year events like earthquakes, droughts, floods or cyclones?

by / January 28, 2014
Aerial view of Hurricane Sandy hitting the New Jersey coast in October 2012. Flickr/U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Mark C. Olsen

Back in the 1970s, Kotaku Wamura, then-mayor of Fudai, Japan, built a huge floodgate between his town and the sea as protection from tsunamis. He had a difficult time of it -- it was ugly, and it cost more than $30 million in today's dollars. But in March 2011, the floodgate saved Fudai from the tsunami that hit and destroyed many other coastal Japanese cities. Wamura died in 1997, and while he never saw the results of his work, people visited his grave to give thanks.

The question of how to protect people and infrastructure from catastrophic floods, storms and hurricanes has become much more difficult in the wake of so-called "100-year events" that seem to occur much more frequently lately, with sometimes horrific consequences. In 2005, for example, Hurricane Katrina cost $100 billion in damages and nearly 2,000 lives. Then Superstorm Sandy caused an estimated $65 billion in damages in 2012, along with the loss of nearly 300 lives in seven countries. While no one reasonably expects to be 100 percent safe from events like these, what can be done to mitigate deaths and damage, and how much protection can be achieved per dollar of infrastructure investment?

Last year President Obama released an Action Plan for Climate Change, which directed agencies to support "climate-resilient" investment in transportation, water management and disaster relief. So what does disaster resilient mean?

"Building disaster resilience," according to the U.K. Department for International Development, "is the term we use to describe the process of helping communities and countries to be better prepared to withstand and rapidly recover from a shock such as an earthquake, drought, flood or cyclone."

According to Obama's action plan, the National Institute of Standards and Technology will begin developing disaster resilience standards, frameworks and guidelines. In addition, the president's 2014 budget proposed $200 million to help communities enhance preparedness and planning. In addition, E&E News reports that the U.S. Department of Transportation announced a $3 billion fund last year for public transit systems. The effort includes things like elevating subway ventilation grates to prevent floodwaters from rushing in.

Between this kind of low-hanging fruit on one end of the spectrum and the "move everyone away from the sea and build concrete bunkers to live in" on the other, is a vast middle ground of actions that can help. Better flood maps, coastal zoning, construction standards and more will be evaluated by the amount of protection afforded and the costs involved.

While Wamura's floodgate is not practical for many locations, selecting and upgrading infrastructure around disaster resilience could spell the difference between destruction and survival.