Resilient construction can protect lives and assets

U.S. infrastructure now faces threats from increasingly powerful natural disasters. Based on extensive disaster-response experience and using a unique analytical process, HNTB has established standards of resiliency, and offers tools, approaches and best practices to make resilient infrastructure a reality.

The new environmental reality
A dramatic increase in the frequency and severity of catastrophes – from windstorms to hurricanes to wildfires – is having a profound impact on communities’ stability and sustainability.

When Super Storm Sandy roared onto the shores of New York and New Jersey in 2012, it demonstrated the damage potential of today’s storms:

• 53 deaths
• $60 billion in damages
• Sustained power and transportation interruptions
• Damage to or loss of 250,000 vehicles swept away by flooding
• Hundreds of homes and businesses destroyed by water or fire

The devastation triggered a thorough reassessment of highways, bridges, railroads and power systems. Virtually every government agency entrusted with providing essential services was forced to rewrite the book on design and construction, and to rebuild with adaptation and resiliency in mind.

New Jersey Transit, which handles about 900,000 weekday passenger trips on rail, light rail and buses, lost many electrical substations in the flooding. HNTB, tapped to assist with recovery and restoration, responded by:

• Identifying projects of the most strategic importance
• Helping to secure federal funding
• Putting plans in place to rebuild electrical substations on higher ground
• Protecting existing critical equipment with a versatile flood barrier that’s engineered for efficient, rapid assembly with minimal effect on ongoing operations

The multibillion-dollar blueprint for a stronger New York City also is taking cues from the effects of Super Storm Sandy. While project funds were earmarked before Sandy hit, the city is investing the money in sustainable construction for what is perhaps the most ambitious and comprehensive resiliency-rebuilding effort in history.

The story is similar along the Gulf Coast where hurricanes in recent years changed the paradigm for rebuilding infrastructure.

After hurricanes Ike and Dolly caused billions in damage across 65,000 square miles, the state of Texas needed to restore communities and improve resiliency. HNTB worked with the Texas General Land Office to identify and create resilient construction plans for crucial projects, and make the case for increased federal funding. The resulting program involved:

• Building roads that better facilitate evacuations
• Creating drainage systems to help alleviate flooding
• Constructing storm shelters and wastewater treatment plants above the base flood elevation
• Installing more than 500 generators on water and wastewater systems to help ensure uninterrupted power supply
• Establishing disciplined standard operating procedures that improve preparedness for future crises

Investing in resiliency and reaping the benefits
Although much of the nation’s infrastructure is lapsing further into disrepair and funding continues to decline, many say smart resiliency investments can reduce long-term costs.

Participating agencies are avoiding greater total life-cycle costs in favor of comparatively less expensive project costs. They even are looking beyond reactive disaster-recovery plans to adopt proactive, prioritized plans that include creative solutions:

• New Jersey Transit is taking initial steps toward creating a proprietary micro-grid power system. If an emergency caused a failure in the commercial power grid, the micro-grid could power ongoing transit operations.
• New Orleans attached its share of a federal funding match, which it arranged following Hurricane Katrina, to a federal highway project. As a result, it was able to add resiliency and greater utility in the form of sidewalks, ramps and bike lanes.

Resiliency investments like these provide economic and social benefits:
• Reduced insurance premiums for businesses and individuals
• Lower energy costs
• Transit networks that facilitate movement and enhance community cohesiveness

Linking multiple agencies and municipalities for common good
More than 4 million Florida residents live along the coast, and more than half of those people live within 4 feet of the tide line. Recognizing that rising sea level and increasing population are a dangerous combination that affects multiple cities and counties, agencies in highly populated coastal areas formed the Southeast Florida Regional Compact. The compact managed the rebuilding of State Road A1A, and the construction of new fire stations and other facilities on ground above flood level.

Another example is the New Orleans flood protection infrastructure constructed after Hurricane Katrina – a model of coordination in planning and funding. Multiple jurisdictions united to capture funding from a variety of sources and get the maximum amount of reimbursement to address qualifying projects. The project also highlighted the benefit of “striking while the iron is hot,” and combining new, protective measures with required restoration.

The agencies say the benefits of the compact outweigh the initial complexity of linking different entities. They point out that the other choice was to do little or nothing, thereby putting their communities just one severe storm away from jeopardy.

Embedding crucial organizational resiliency
Building resiliency goes beyond physical infrastructure. It also involves embedding resiliency inside organizations — ensuring that they have systems and processes in place that allow them to adapt, adjust, evolve and respond to change and emerging challenges.

HNTB experts recommend that agencies:
• Begin with the end in mind.
• Don’t just react to circumstances.  Reaction is temporary; careful, planned response is more permanent.
• Make sure needed resources can be identified and made available quickly by fully analyzing and evaluating disasters’ potential effects.