Damage Prevention

Natural Disaster Are Intensifying; Project Teams Must Learn from Recent Catastrophes to Mitigate Growing Risks



A flooded scrapyard in Callahan, Florida, USA after Hurricane Irma


The danger zone for deadly natural disasters knows no boundaries.

Last year alone brought severe flooding in China and Peru, devastating earthquakes in Mexico, historic hurricanes in the United States and raging wildfires around the world. These events killed hundreds of people and destroyed thousands of homes. They also left whole communities without power and clean water for months.

“Disasters like the ones we saw in 2017 should be a wake-up call for government and city leaders who often put off major capital investments.”

—Bas Jonkman, Delft University, Delft, the Netherlands


The financial impact is staggering. Hurricane Maria caused Puerto Rico US$22 billion in physical damage alone and was the 12th disaster in 2017 in U.S. territory to exceed US$1 billion in damage, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In 2016, natural disasters caused global economic losses of US$210 billion—21 percent higher than the average of the 16 prior years, according to a report by Aon Benfield.

More than ever before, engineering companies, governments and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are being forced to take a hard look at their risk management strategies. Project teams must figure out how to build more resilient structures and develop urban infrastructure that can stand up to an increasingly hostile environment. Even projects in areas that were previously considered out of harm's way can no longer ignore the need to plan for the worst, says Bas Jonkman, professor of hydraulic engineering at Delft University, Delft, the Netherlands.

“Disasters like the ones we saw in 2017 should be a wake-up call for government and city leaders who often put off major capital investments in disaster planning until tragedy occurs,” says Mr. Jonkman, who has worked with many city governments around the world on flood mitigation projects. “People need to prioritize these projects.”


What was once far-fetched has become the new normal. Hurricanes are pushing farther inland in coastal areas and battering entirely new regions. As threats expand, today's project teams have to look beyond long-standing building requirements and codes to determine how new structures and renovated spaces can be built to avoid long-term risks.

“Ten years ago, if someone had suggested that Houston, Texas should build its infrastructure to withstand a thousand-year flood, it probably wouldn't have been too well received,” says Andrew Smith, national stormwater watershed practice lead for Black & Veatch, Kansas City, Kansas, USA.



“Every structure in the area has an impact, and you have to factor them all into your project plan.”

—Andrew Smith, Black & Veatch, Kansas City, Kansas, USA


Flooded office buildings in Houston, Texas, USA


In 2016, natural disasters caused global economic losses of US$210 billion— 21% higher than the average of the 16 prior years.

Source: Aon Benfield

Mr. Smith is working with a power company in Texas to prevent its substations from flooding in the future—including one that was built in a flood zone. The threat of flooding for that particular substation has increased since an adjacent shopping center was built on part of the nearby flood plain, he says. So Mr. Smith has met with power company stakeholders to pick a solution: move the station or build flood-protection systems.

“When you're presenting options to stakeholders, it's easier to frame the conversations in terms of cost,” Mr. Smith says.

For example, moving the station to higher ground would be extremely expensive, because the station's heavy and customized equipment is difficult to relocate. But doing so would allow the company to invest less in flood protection and reduce its long-term risk exposure. If the utility chooses to keep the station in place, Mr. Smith's team will focus on developing a plan that helps mitigate the risk of damage from future floods.

And cost consequences go far beyond the station, he says. For example, there is an abandoned bridge on the station property that raises the flood plain. Taking out the bridge would create more area for stormwater to flow, lowering the flood risk. And such a move would allow the project team to build shorter flood-protection walls, which is a cost savings.

“You need to consider the entire system for flooding risks and prevention opportunities,” Mr. Smith says. “Every structure in the area has an impact, and you have to factor them all into your project plan to make the best decisions.”


Convincing public and private organizations of the need for risk mitigation measures can be a challenge for project managers. So they have to show the long-term value of acting now.

Teams can bolster their case by showing lessons learned from previous disasters, such as buildings that crumbled because they weren't designed to meet seismic codes or streets that flooded because stormwater was trapped by parking lots and housing developments.

“We have the knowledge and technology to build more resilient cities,” says Eric Cesal, visiting lecturer in the college of architecture at the University of California—Berkeley, Berkeley, California, USA. “The problem is convincing the public and the government to pay for it.”


“Managing a post-disaster recovery project is far more complex than traditional projects.”

—Dzulkarnaen Ismail, PhD, Universiti Teknologi MARA, Perak, Malaysia


Destruction from Hurricane Maria in Naranjito, Puerto Rico


Getting stakeholder buy-in is the primary obstacle Mr. Jonkman faces as he works with researchers at Texas A&M University to design a “coastal spine” that would prevent flooding in hurricane-vulnerable Galveston, Texas. The project is similar to an initiative launched in the Netherlands after major floods there in 1953. The plan combines natural and man-made barriers, including oyster reefs, sand dunes and floating gates, to keep storm surge water out of Galveston during high-wind events. But attempts to greenlight the project have been clogged for years because of cost concerns.

“For a long time not much happened to push it forward, but since Harvey the conversation has changed,” Mr. Jonkman says. The project plan now involves getting media attention that's helping to build political support—though it's still unclear when it will secure enough funding.

“The state of Texas now supports this project, but it could cost up to US$10 billion. So [the U.S. government] will have to put in a lot of funding to make it work,” he says.


In both emerging and developed nations, fluctuating resources and interest can stymie the planning of long-term and short-term projects that mitigate damage from natural disasters, says Dzulkarnaen Ismail, PhD, senior lecturer, Universiti Teknologi MARA, Perak, Malaysia.

“Managing a post-disaster recovery project is far more complex than traditional projects,” he says. “Materials, manpower and machinery are in scarce supply.”

Dr. Ismail has worked on natural disaster recovery and prevention projects around the world, including after earthquakes in Pakistan and Indonesia and after a typhoon in the Philippines. To ensure buildings and infrastructure can withstand future tumult, his teams focus on a set of disaster management approaches supported by many agencies and organizations. The Building Back Better principle applies lessons learned from past project failures and successes, engages the community for feedback, uses local resources to limit costs and calculates future risks into the project plan.



“The increased evaluation of flood preparedness will lead to increased investment in flood protection and resilience in the near future.”

—Andrew Smith

Successfully demonstrating this practice will ensure that donors place more faith and funds in their organizations. It will also show governments, NGOs and local stakeholders the benefits of investing time to build a solid project plan so that decisions will deliver long-term value to the community, he says. The promise of using the Building Back Better model helped secure a US$24 million commitment from the European Investment Bank and the Caribbean Development Bank in November to fund infrastructure reconstruction projects in parts of the Caribbean that suffered hurricane damage last year. Project managers involved in those reconstruction efforts will integrate climate risks and vulnerability assessments to improve decision making.

“The project managers on the ground have to champion these decisions,” Dr. Ismail says. “They understand the place better than the sponsors, and they can help determine the needs and what resources are available.”

Mr. Smith believes the recent surge of natural disasters around the world will spur renewed support for projects and help sharpen focus on planning that mitigates the impact of potentially catastrophic events. He points to the proposed state flood plan for Texas. This state government has recognized the need to develop coordinated efforts and best practices for the anticipated investment of billions of dollars over the coming years. The investments aim to evaluate flood preparedness and protection and establish strategies to minimize risk and improve response. Black & Veatch developed a project proposal for the Texas Water Development Board to win a portion of the work.

“This was an idea that was in the works before Harvey. However, it took on new importance in the wake of the disaster,” Mr. Smith says. “The increased evaluation of flood preparedness will lead to increased investment in flood protection and resilience in the near future.” PM

Tunnel Vision

A project team will temporarily shut down subway service so flooding doesn't cause long-term problems.

With nearly 5.7 million riders each day, the subway system in New York, New York, USA can't afford to stop. Yet that's precisely what happened five years ago when Hurricane Sandy flooded tunnels and disabled service for days.

Determined to ensure the subway system never gets waterlogged again, the city has launched a massive flood mitigation program. The initiative includes a US$477 million project to upgrade stations and reconstruct the tunnel for a train line from Manhattan to Brooklyn under the East River—one of the city's most crowded routes that suffered some of the worst damage from Sandy. Construction is set to begin in April 2019 and is slated for completion in the second half of 2020.


Coming up with a workable plan for rehabilitating the tunnel and station was not a straightforward process, says Nasim Moghaddasi, PhD, PMP, supervising engineer for engineering firm WSP, New York. WSP won the engineering contract for the upgrade project. Building an entirely new tunnel would have been significantly more expensive and time-consuming than rehabilitating the existing tunnel. Dr. Moghaddasi's team provided a design to reconstruct miles of corroded ductwork that holds electrical and communication conduits, shore up structural deficiencies, and install new stairways and elevators to accommodate all passengers.


Flooding from Hurricane Sandy shut down the subway system in New York, New York, USA.


But to deliver the project safely and efficiently, project sponsor Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) will have to shut down a section of the tunnel for more than a year. The line handles about 300,000 passengers every day, so MTA is motivated to complete the project as soon as possible. While the original timeline was 18 months, MTA will give contractors US$15 million to complete the repairs in 15 months. MTA also plans to provide alternative public transportation options during the shutdown, including extra bus and ferry services, to mitigate the impact for travelers.

MTA also investigated an alternative plan that would have required only a partial shutdown of the tunnel so trains could operate on one side of the tunnel while repairs were done on the other. But Dr. Moghaddasi says that option was found to be more expensive, with substantially longer construction time and more safety risks for passengers and contractors.


MTA will need to keep passengers and workers safe during construction—and ensure the project achieves all objectives. Dr. Moghaddasi's design team collaborated with MTA on a series of workshops to identify all potential risks and create mitigation plans. Among the risk items identified were utilities relocation, obtaining timely agreements with stakeholders and ensuring site safety during construction.

Another challenge: Design standards and codes are being updated continuously by federal, state and city organizations to account for data obtained from the latest natural disasters as well as new research and technology findings. As always, Dr. Moghaddasi and her team had to ensure the plan used the most updated design codes and standards, and also communicate closely with the client about the engineering recommendations that work best for each specific project.

“Having close communication with the client about design approach, lessons learned from other projects, risk mapping and mitigation plans and providing best practice recommendations creates an environment to deliver safer and more resilient infrastructure projects,” she says.