Safe Human Settlement Policy Initiative

Safe Human Settlement Policy Initiative

Friday, May 29, 2015

When Even the Best Disaster Preparations #Fail



May 2015 has been a difficult weather month for the Central US.  Two incidents reported in the news underscore the fact that even the best preparations—even the most seemingly well-engineered solutions—often fail in the face of the worst that Nature sends our way.

In the first, ground water forced a tornado shelter out of the ground in storm-ravaged Oklahoma.  The same rains that brought the potential for high winds popped the shelter from the ground like a cork.  Fortunately, nobody was injured and the proper ground anchors are being installed.

Unfortunately, the second example is tragic, as well as informative.  Three individuals are still missing when their vacation home in Texas, built on concrete “stilts” to avoid damage during flooding by the nearby river, was swept from its foundation and has been destroyed.  Raging waters carried away a mother and two children. A grieving father survived.




Finally, a major region of the World suffered yet another devastating earthquake last month.  The videos were stunning.  People with cell phone cameras stood filming in city squares while massive stone towers toppled and crumbled.  Pedestrians fell to their feet.  It looked almost fake—like really poor special effects in a summer disaster movie.  And yet the shaking and the damage and the loss of life were very real. 

Even many climbers on Mt. Everest were no match for the avalanches triggered by the quake.  As of this writing, USA Today reports more than 8,500 people killed in Nepal, with another 18,000 injured.  The quake leveled a half-million homes and left more than 3 million homeless.

An online report in the UK’s GuardianNewspaper addresses a critical subject: The safe rebuilding of Nepal’s structures and the “crisis of poverty” that causes such loss of life in the first place.  It’s a significant and profound point I’d like to repeat here (with citation below).

"Around three-quarters of all deaths in earthquakes are due to building collapse. Low-cost and informal buildings are most likely to fail, meaning that earthquakes disproportionately affect the poorest in the community, and usually leave them even poorer. The technology and skills to practically eliminate this scale of fatality are available. Yet they are not reaching the people who need them most. Earthquakes are not just a “natural” crisis: they reflect a poverty crisis.

"This is a development problem produced by a failure to incorporate risk and resilience into long-term planning. An earthquake shouldn’t have to be the impetus to “build back better” after lives have already been destroyed. Building better should start from day one.

"After a disaster like Nepal’s earthquake, the international community needs to assist in long-term, safe reconstruction. If it does not, the construction will be carried out in an ad-hoc manner, with unplanned reconstruction and inadequate skills resulting in unsafe buildings. This pattern locks poor communities into a cycle of vulnerability, leaving them unprotected against the next earthquake."

In conclusion, let me echo and re-emphasize the sentiment of the writer of the article:

"Nepal’s reconstruction is so crucial because it is an opportunity to take the global community’s combined knowledge and do better.  It is more important than ever to focus not only on providing immediate relief, but to deliver a more resilient, stronger built environment that will not produce a repeat tragedy of this scale again."

I could not have said it better myself! We can improve these structures. We must work together to do so.