Construction After Crisis

Responding and Rebuilding

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Natural disasters across the world have been increasing in frequency. Some claim that this is a result of global warming, and others cite overbuilding in flood zones as the primary cause. “As you put more and more people in harm’s way, you make a disaster out of something that before was just a natural event,” said Klaus Jacob, a senior research scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.
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Whatever the reason for this increase in natural disasters, the construction industry is crucial to recovery efforts and the reconstruction of affected areas’ commercial and residential needs. There is also the need to maintain and improve upon the previous infrastructure. This is no easy task and is fraught with challenges.

The good news is that recent history has shown that incidents such as the earthquake that struck Sichuan province in China in 2008, the Alaskan earthquake in 1964, or even Florida’s Hurricane Andrew in 1992 have provided many forms of economic prosperity in the aftermath. On the other side of the coin is Hurricane Katrina which adversely affected the city of New Orleans.

Hurricane Katrina reached a category 5 rating on August 28, 2005. Despite being downgraded to a Category 4 the day it hit the New Orleans region, the hurricane imposed abnormally harsh winds and high storm surges, which burdened its flood protection systems. The levee failures were most significant, and seventy-five percent of the metro area was affected. Hardest hit was the Lower Ninth Ward in which 200,000 homes were destroyed, and the effect upon the construction industry, both in terms of cost and claims, is still being felt today.

The need for reconstruction had never been more pressing, and the devastation was unprecedented, especially in the residential sector. This led to a boom in home construction, and the federal government planned to bulldoze huge areas of the St. Bernard Parish to accommodate it.

Post-Katrina saw an increase in the prices for concrete, gypsum, PVC, cement, lumber and steel, driving up construction costs. Commercial projects had to wait due to labour and material shortages. The primary concerns were for infrastructure and residential needs. The building of newer, stronger levees was of paramount importance.

Hurricane Katrina caused the deaths of 1,570 citizens and losses of $40 billion to$50 billion. Despite the efforts of the construction industry, these losses have proven to be almost insurmountable, and economic recovery has been very slow.

Pre-existing conditions in New Orleans led to this eventuality. Insufficient levees meant that eventually a disaster of this magnitude would happen and the construction industry was always – and still is – working to catch up. This, however, seems to be an anomaly. Hurricane Sandy in 2012 can be seen as an example of how a natural disaster can be a boon to the economy.

This was predicted by economists prior to the storm’s arrival. “After Sandy passes through, there will be opportunity for the construction industry and additional private spending. There will be initial devastation, but people will end up coming back and reinvesting,” said Mike Highfield, associate professor of finance and head of Mississippi State University’s Department of Finance and Economics.

The earthquakes in China and Alaska also started an economic recovery and prosperity that may surprise many. A month following the quake in Sichuan Province, the Chinese government claimed, through its State Information Center, that the colossal reconstruction would put billions of dollars into the economy. According to the centre, the benefits would do more than make up for the losses caused by the quake and would, in fact, raise national economic growth by 0.3 percent.

“Some economists argue that despite the widespread destruction they leave behind, hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, volcanic eruptions and ice storms spur economic growth,” said Drake Bennet of the New York Times. He goes on to say that rebuilding provides a temporary improvement by drawing assets to the region. Rebuilding also promotes the construction of an updated and improved infrastructure, creating long-term economic benefits.

Preventative measures are now just as important as the post-construction efforts in mitigating the negative economic and social impacts associated with natural disasters. The Wood Truss Council of America’s (WTCA) Structural Building Components Research Institute (SBCRI) has a testing centre in Madison, Wisconsin that can duplicate the effects of severe weather on construction materials and methods. Loads and pressure applied to the test builds mimic wind, snow loads or earthquake conditions.

The data that the SBCRI receives from this testing will result in changes to installation recommendations, improved components and better design. This allows the construction industry to plan for future events, with preventative measures in place. However, this is but one example.

The construction industry is beginning to notice and is acting appropriately. Due to the increase in natural disasters, a new body of understanding has begun. It is called disaster resilience and has been increasingly seen as central concern for construction professionals.

McGraw-Hill Construction published a report in September 2011, following Hurricane Irene’s path through the East Coast. The paper, listing methods that might assist in planning for future natural disasters, emphasized the need for partnerships between insurance loss prevention experts and private sector partners. Together, the groups could calculate the risks and determine how to achieve resiliency to lessen the effect.

This ability to adapt and recover provides community coping skills to deal with the unknown in the aftermath of disasters. The World Economic Forum’s Engineering and Construction Disaster Resource Partnership has taken this one step further and listed assorted methods to deploy assets from materials and equipment to supply chains and labour to support relief response effort. Short-term partnerships are forged by the prevailing atmosphere of need. Longer-term recovery necessitates a coordinated method to ensure the building of a successful community with less vulnerability in the future.

Haiti seems to be in a zone of natural disasters. It was hit by an earthquake six years ago that can only be described as cataclysmic, and recently Hurricane Matthew devastated the island nation of ten million, displacing many. What else can the construction industry do to aid in the recovery and rebuilding efforts?

Washington, DC media company Citiscope provides some answers in its article Six Lessons from Rebuilding Port-au-Prince. Partnerships once again come into play again as the article proposes that non-governmental organizations work with government agencies on building projects targeting Port-au-Prince’s most vulnerable neighbourhoods.

One of the most vital ideas explored in the article is listening to residents. It is crucial to involve the local populace in expressing their vision for the neighbourhood. Allowing the reconstruction to proceed naturally, instead of imposing an external vision on the area, can be achieved through homeowner-driven seismic retrofits which empowers the locals to upgrade while learning new skills.

Also suggested is experimenting with new housing models. Before the earthquake, there were not many multi-family housing units, and in the last five years that has changed dramatically.

The role of the construction industry following a natural disaster has been the subject of a significant body of research. There is growing recognition that the industry has a much broader role to anticipate, prevent, prepare for, assess, respond to and recover from disruptive challenges.

As each calamity takes place, the methodologies become more streamlined, and knowledge is gathered that will help with future disaster reconstruction. The construction industry is learning new means of dealing with reconstruction in a way that rebuilds residential and commercial sectors as well as infrastructure. However, the goal is to take preventative measures, and that is accomplished through scientific research and the ability to form partnerships that will enable all agencies involved in disaster relief.

Industry Changemakers

The construction industry has historically been slow to evolve, drawn to tradition over technology. As the industry is in a state of rapid innovation and advancement, organizations like the Toronto Construction Association (TCA) are working tirelessly to build strong member businesses that won’t fall behind.

June 18, 2019, 4:18 PM EDT