Advancing Awareness, Transparency & Education for Greater Resilience in the Built Environment

PART I: Before the Storm

If you’re going to have a disaster, my advice is: have a big one!
Former US government official speaking before a 2015 conference

Chapter 1 - From One Disaster to Another: Superpower Vulnerability

Three major disasters mark recent US history:

  1. August 1992: Hurricane Andrew, a category 5 storm, hits the urban coast of south Florida with 150-175 mph winds and a 17-ft. storm water surge. It continues on to Louisiana, and in its wake leaves 65 people dead, a quarter million homeless, and 1.4 million without power. 600,000 homes/ buildings are destroyed/damaged. 43 million cubic yards of debris are created. Damages amount to $26.5 billion (1992 dollars). The local insurance industry does not survive. The state of Florida (i.e. its taxpayers) steps in to fill the void. In its aftermath, building codes are strengthened and enforced setting some of the highest standards for hurricane resilience in the world.
  1. August 2005: 13 years later, Hurricane Katrina, a category 4 storm, hits the urban coast of Louisiana and neighboring states with 120-145 mph winds and a 20-30-ft. storm surge. It is followed within weeks by hurricanes Rita and Wilma. In their wake, 1,836 people die, 300,000 homes/buildings are destroyed/damaged, 120 million cubic yards of debris is generated, and dam­ages amount to $108 billion (2005 dollars). The US federal government (i.e. taxpayers) steps in to pay the bills.  Building codes are upgraded along coastal communities, but not consistently.
  1. October 2012: 7 years later, Hurricane Sandy (a category 1) hits the dense New York/New Jersey metro areas with 80-100 mph winds and a 14-ft. storm surge. 286 die, 300,000 homes/buildings are destroyed/damaged, and 8.5 million people are without power. Sandy creates 20 million cubic yards of debris and inflicts $68 billion (2013 dollars) in damages. Again the fed­eral government steps up to foot the bill. Again building codes are up­graded.


In total these three events killed 2,187 people, destroyed/damaged 1.2 million homes/buildings, cost $250 billion (2014 dollars) and created 180 million cubic yards of debris. This cost does not include indirect economic losses (productivity, revenue, health etc.). The debris alone would fill a land­fill the size of 3,000 football fields 4 stories deep.

The alarming note is that all this destruction occurred over a mere fifth of a century in just the eastern quarter of US and from only one hazard type. The built environment failed on a scale that it shouldn’t have. Its Resilience Capacity proved low. The panic button was pushed repeatedly only to reveal that Emergency Capacity also was lacking.

According to the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA, part of the Department of Homeland Security), during the last four decades the total number of major disaster declarations has more than doubled.

Reported Disasters
2005 – 2014
1995 – 2004
1985 – 1994
1975 – 1984

A number of factors lie behind this escalation, but it is clear that the US has become more disaster-prone. If the most built and economically de­vel­oped nation is so vulnerable, how worried should the rest of the world be?

The UN estimates that the average annual global cost of disasters has reached $300 billion and is growing. Only about a quarter of this amount is ac­tu­ally insured. This figure exceeds the GDP of 80% of the world’s econo­mies. If converted to a tax on annual global GDP growth, it would equal 12%

The three events mentioned earlier only form the most visible tip of the US ‘disaster iceberg’. If we review tornados, the conclusion is similar. Exam­ine floods, same story. Investing made the US a ‘superpower’, but when it comes to that investment’s resilience to natural hazards the US appears to have ‘built’ itself into a vulnerable corner.

Its relative exposure can be seen in this ten-year review (2000-09) by Global Humanitarian Assistance, which lists the ten countries with popula­tions most impacted by natural disasters:

Population Impact
1. China
1,321 million people impacted
2. India
3. Bangladesh
4. Philippines
5. Thailand
6. Pakistan
7. Ethiopia
8. Vietnam
9. US
10. S. Africa

The above represents 90% of the global populations affected by disasters during this period. The US is the only developed country to make the list. In terms of population impacted specifically by flood disasters, the US ranked fifth in the world and again was the only developed country.

However the record is even more severe when the same countries are ranked by the economic cost of disasters. The US is #1.

1. US353 billion US dollars
2. China206
3. India26
4. Pakistan17
5. Ethiopia9
6. Bangladesh6
7. Vietnam6
8. Philippines3
9. Thailand2
10. S. Africa1

These represented 61% of total global disaster losses. US losses exceed­ed the sum of the remaining nine countries combined. Of course US invest­ment and wealth intensity is higher. You would expect that level of investment would come with a higher level of lasting quality. Unfortunately much of it is not.

This magnitude of disaster losses might appear affordable to Americans (while public debt mounts), but would definitely be unbearable for the rest of the world. Such development is clearly unsustainable. While the US may not serve as the role model for resilient development, it may better form an exam­ple of how not to develop. Non-resilient development is very costly. It also wastes valuable natural resources and burdens the environ­ment with enor­mous disaster debris. So far, the green movement appears to have missed this.

The purpose here is not to ‘beat-up’ on the US, but rather to learn from its experience and avoid repeating its mistakes. What can nations (and the US) do differently to make their development more resilient to destruc­tion (i.e. invest in Resilience Capacity)? The answer requires analyzing the root causes of vulnerability. We will therefore explore the US development model with an eye on extracting these lessons.

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