“It’s not a matter of if a natural disaster happens, it’s when.”

As a recent guest on the Disaster Zone podcast, hosted by Eric Holdeman, the Director of the Center for Regional Disaster Resilience (CRDR) in Washington State, I talked about how breaking the disaster cycle requires us to be honest about the massive natural disaster risk we are currently passing on to the next generation. The total cost of disasters every year worldwide is more than a hundred billion dollars, with tens of thousands of lives lost nearly every year, sometimes hundreds of thousands. Whether a disaster happens to you or not, it will happen to someone, sometime and soon. As a society and as individuals, can we really place the inevitable impacts of future disasters on the heads of our descendants, because we won’t make investments now to prevent them?

One of the most cost-effective ways to protect our communities, businesses, and families against the impacts of future disasters is to take stock of our building codes and what they do and do not deliver in terms of disaster performance. The purpose of the code is to protect the safety of building occupants after a fire or a hurricane or an earthquake. But code compliant buildings are not expected to be proof against those events, which can render even a safe building a total loss.

We expect our “essential facilities” like hospitals, police, and fire stations to remain in operation after a major disaster. But it’s time to re-evaluate what “essential” means. Over the past 18 months with the pandemic, grocery stores and big box retailers have been indispensable to our communities. They will be after a natural disaster as well. Also essential is a 200-unit low-income apartment complex that houses families and a workforce that won’t be able to find alternative housing after a disaster. A recent report produced by the National Institute of Science and Technology and FEMA describes how “functional recovery”–the ability of a building to be quickly restored to serve is basic function–should serve as a minimum standard for a wide range of buildings that are important to sustaining basic community functions and disaster recovery.

Current codes do not plan for this level of functionality, and not all at-risk communities have adopted the latest recommended codes. Furthermore, most modern building codes are really only about 30 years old. In most cities, about 90% of the building stock was built before modern codes. If modern codes are designed to protect safety, and 90% of the buildings in a city may not even comply with those codes, we see a picture emerge of the potential risks our cities face over the next decades.

Consider the tragedy of the Champlain Towers in Miami, a building designed to a code that is more than 40 years old. I think that as engineers pour through the drawings for the building what they are going to find is that the collapse was preventable. The building was built according to the codes of the time, but those codes lacked requirements for more ductile and redundant reinforcing steel in the concrete beams and columns. Couple that with poor maintenance of a structure that is essentially built in a highly corrosive marine environment, and we start to worry that this is not the last such tragedy we may experience.

The US Resiliency Council tries to embody what we call the E4 Principal: Engineering in the service of Equity, the Environment, and our Economy. A great example when it comes to all three is the idea that resilience doesn’t have to be accessible only to the wealthy. Consider Casa Adelante, an apartment building in San Francisco for low income and formerly homeless seniors. This is the type of building that ordinarily would have been built to the very minimum requirements of the building code but the structural engineer came up with a innovative structural damper that was installed in the foundation. This building is now likely to not only survive a major earthquake, but it is also expected to remain habitable. The additional investment was only one-quarter of one percent of the cost of the building.

I ended my interview with Eric Holdeman by quoting an unofficial USRC motto: “Fear plus hope and a plan.” We have to accept the frightening reality that natural hazard events are going to happen, but because affordable techniques and ways to design buildings are available, these events don’t have to become disasters.

To hear the full podcast go to https://disasterzone.buzzsprout.com/1176869/8843128@Eric_Holdeman