During my college years, in California, as I pursued studies in environmental design, architecture and urban planning, I became interested in finding out what happens when a building interacts with a natural hazard. What external forces are applied to the building by the hazard? What are the effects from such interaction? How does a building manage to remain standing after being hit by an earthquake, or a hurricane, or by flooding? How does damage happens, what are the main causes of damage?
I began building models of my designs, seeking answers to these questions, to test their performance under simulated external loads while looking for solutions to reduce adverse effects. This process helped me focus on the cause and effect triggered by external loads acting on a building, the resulting effects, and how design criteria could counteract the same.
These early concerns led me to the practice of forensic architecture early in my career, as I had opportunities to conduct damage assessment and both building repair and reconstruction, as well as some demolition, in the aftermath of major earthquakes in Central America. What I learned during that period served me well when I conducted damage assessment in Cancun, Mexico and the Maya Riviera following major hurricane Gilbert in 1988. Building upon invaluable empirical knowledge acquired during these events, I was ready when the Florida Department of Community Affairs (DCA) retained my services to help with damage assessment in Miami-Dade County, Florida during the response and initial recovery phase after the disaster caused by Category 5 Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
At that time in 1992 the practice of emergency management was based on a simple three-phase framework, often referred to as a “three-legged-stool”. This framework is illustrated in the figure below:
Early in 1993 the federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) engaged my services to support their hazard mitigation program for the Hurricane Andrew major disaster declaration. This was something new in my career and yet quite familiar as it related to the questions I had been asking when I was a college student. The focus of this program was the identification and implementation of cost-effective measures to reduce the potential for damage to the built environment from future disasters. When I started managing this program FEMA’s policies were heavy on rules and regulations from Title 44 of the Code of Federal Regulations (44 CFR), and quite light when it came to actual field experience and implementation of structural “brick-and-mortar” or other engineering solutions. I designed a program where my team and I started with some inhouse training focusing on issues of project eligibility, eligible costs, benefit-cost analysis, and on how to go from 44 CFR regulations on paper to actual implementation of engineering measures in the field, to then apply a “learn-by-doing” process where we learned empirically in the field on a project by project basis. Soon our methodical approach started showing practical results in the form of hundreds of funded and completed projects using a wide range of effective and often imaginative engineering solutions.
Over time as our method proven successful, FEMA asked me to do the same and take charge of hazard mitigation programs for three other declared major disasters, including one that may be familiar to some in South Florida: the “No-name storm of March 1993”! Also, and for the first time ever, FEMA requested both their hazard mitigation programs, under Section 404 and Section 406 of the Stafford Act, be managed by the same manager, which I did for the next three years. By early 1996 we had processed, funded, and partially implemented some 700 projects worth hundreds of million of dollars throughout Florida, having learned quite a bit in the process.
Three of the most important things we learned while managing hazard mitigation programs were the following: a) Assessing the vulnerability of a facility on a site-specific basis is a required foundation for an effective hazard mitigation project; b) Above all hazard mitigation is about the reduction of potential damage, meaning damage before it happens; and c) Hazard mitigation is the foundation of emergency management. This acquired foundational knowledge lead to FEMA launching a “National Mitigation Startegy” and soon therafter a program known as “Project Impact” under which several communities were selected in different regions of the country to pursue initiatives with the objective on involving entire communities in being educated in and in practicing preparedness and hazard mitigation. One of the first Project Impact communities was Deerfield Beach, Florida, right in our neighborhood. A citically important byproduct of Project Impact was a pilot project funded by FEMA in Miami-Dade County, in which I am honored to have participated, and in which I continue to participate as member of the Steering Committee, this important project is known as the “Local Mitigation Strategy” which became a national example and the foundation for a federal law modifying the Stafford Act in 2000 to require all states and their jurisdictions to practice “Mitigation Planning”. Under these requirements states must draft and implement a “State Hazard Mitigation Plan”, which involves a process of periodic review and approval by FEMA, and a state-wide risk assessment to be completed every three years. In support of this plan the state requires all counties to have their own Hazard Mitigation Plan and to organize and manage a “Local Mitigation Strategy” (LMS) involving all county departments, all municipalities, and other critical participants such as representtaives from FEMA, the Red Cross, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the State Division of Emergency Management, other state institutions, local universities, major healthcare facilities and others.
As a result of all of the above actions and events, and of the acquired knowledge associated with the same, it became clear that a new framerwork was needed to more accurately reflect the reality of the practice of emergency management. The following figure ilustrates this change:
In my opinion this new framework, illustrated above, is right on target. So much so, that as my team worked on identifying mitigation solutions for various projects the real test of whether a proposed mitigation alternative would be effective came down to the answer when asking the following question: “will this reduce potential damage”? In other words, hazard mitigation, read “damage reduction”, was at the core of emergency management.
While engaged in these endeavours, in 1994 I started teaching graduate courses in ‘Vulnerability Assessment’ and in ‘Hazard Mitigation’ for the Department of Construction Management, College of Engineering and Computing at Florida International University (FIU), where in the absence of a textbook I had the privilege of showing my students what hazard mitigation was about by visiting some of my projects throughout South Florida. In 1995 I became involved with the International Hurricane Center (IHC) where a group of academics, mainly from the social sciences, were beginning to chart the waters to develop an agenda of “hurricane research”. In the Fall of 1997 the IHC hosted the “Hemispheric Congress on Disaster Reduction and Sustainable Development”, which I managed, under the umbrella of the “United Nations International Decade of Natural Disaster Reduction ” (UNIDNDR). I still remember some of the presentations and panel discussions focusing on the definition of ‘sustainable development’, which brings me to the topic of the terms we use in our discussions and their definitions.
I recently participated as a speaker and subject matter expert in a webinar on “Designing and Building for Coastal Resiliency” hosted by Half Moon Education, Inc. (Miami, 3 April 2020), where the central theme was ‘Resilience”. I find a distinct common thread between those discussions on sustainable development in 1997 and these on resilience in 2020, which goes through other terms such as sustainability, preparedness, mitigation, and adaptation which at one time or another each became the preferred term over the 24 year span. It is as if we yearn to have a ‘term du jour’ to guide our conversation without really changing the subject matter. In the case of resilience my opinion is that the term is being used as a “catch-all” that is lacking a generally accepted definition and a much needed contextual framework. If we want resilience to become an effective practice we must adopt a clear and specific definition and stablish a well structured framework that truly reflects what the practice of resilience is about. In support of this argument I would like to offer the following ideas regarding what this needed new framework looks like:
I propose a multi-step approach, which I will describe below, with the objective of establishing the needed “New Framewrok for Resilience”. Folowing are the steps I propose:
1. Start by abandoning all preconceptions.
2. Accept the practice of vulnerability assessment as the required starting point and true foundation of resilience. We need to know and understand what can harm our communities before we can protect against such threats.
3. Address natural hazards in terms of their damaging components.
4. Consider the built-environment in terms of its functionality as shelter for human activity.
5. Visualize the interaction of the built-environment with a hazard. Understand the effects of such interaction, and the consequences of such effects on the performance of a building during the hazard event and on its functionality.
6. Always consider the role of building shape and the profile a building presents to external forces generated by a hazard.
7. Understand and consider the continuity of the building envelope as it relates to the performance of a building under impact of a hazard.
8. Always consider the character of the vicinity surrounding the building under study.
9. Identify and consider the effects of impact modifiers, which may exacerbate the impact and potential for damage to a building during a hazard event.
10. Understand and consider hidden threats and unintended consequences. Vulnerability is dynamic and changes over time in response to changes in hazards or the community.
11. Understand and consider interconnections and dependencies. A building may depend of external sources for critical services, or could iteself be a source of services to others.
12. Understand and always consider the climate factor as an exacerbator of existing hazards. For example: global warming leading to higher moisture retention in the atmosphere and extreme rain events, or sea level rise leading to higher faster flowing waves and storm surge and exponentially higher more damaging impacts.
13. Be forward looking. Consider expected impacts (future) during the service life of a building. But look back at the historical record to establish benchmarks for damage and damage functions for buildings.
14. Use previous steps and acquired data to develop scenarios of expected impacts from future hazard events over time.
15. Assess potential damage to a building per hazard event. Consider the full range of potential damage: loss of life, injury, physical, structural, interior, contents, functionality, environmental etc.
16. Assess risk for each hazard event scenario.
17. Consider damage reduction as central toward the goal of resilience.
18. Identify a range of effective hazard mitigation solutions and calculate the cost-effectiveness of each.
19. Develop design criteria for the design of new buildings or retrofitting of existing buildings.
20. Beyond the building by building approach, always consider the possibility of community-wide or regional solutions.
The following diagram illustrates how all of the above identified steps configure the new proposed framework for resilience:
This framework needs to be reviewed, calibrated, modified and enhanced periodically. certainly after each new hazard impact, before designing a new building or retrofitting an existing one, and periodically on a fixed schedule to account for changes in population density, demographics, and in the built-environment.