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Breakout Session 3: Engineering to mitigate natural disasters


Antonio Bobet, Abraham Klip


Ghadir Haikal


Building Resilient Communities


Recent natural disasters have shown the vulnerability of our built environment. For example, the 2005 Katrina hurricane impacted the US Gulf coast causing widespread flooding, extensive failure of levees, a total of two thousands deaths and more than eighty billion cost on direct damage. The 2010 Haiti earthquake took the lives of tens of thousands of people, damaged or destroyed hundreds of thousands of buildings, and devastated the economy of Haiti. The 2011 Tohoku earthquake in Japan and the associated tsunami caused great devastation to the coastal cities of Japan with more than fifteen thousand deaths, tens of thousands of buildings destroyed, hundreds of thousands damaged, at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars. What is sobering about the Tohoku earthquake is the extensive loss of life and economic damage that occurred in the best well-prepared country in the world against earthquakes and tsunamis. It seems clear from past experience that the issue is not when a natural disaster will occur or how intense or extensive it will be, but rather how to be prepared to mitigate the damage and recover quickly when it happens.


Possible actions to mitigate natural disasters are divided into the following:

  • Prevention: It encompasses all activities that focus on prevention of the cause of the damage or mitigation of the damage before the disaster occurs. Investment on research to develop effective tools to accurately monitor fault stress buildup and estimate timing and intensity of earthquakes, to predict storm path and intensity, to monitor slope movements to assess potential for landslides, etc. would be instrumental in preventing damage by providing warning to officials and to the population to take appropriate measures before a disaster strikes. Development of effective policies for design and build infrastructure and urban developments according to the type and hazard at each site would also be an effective mechanism to decrease damage before such an event. This is a possible item action for Policy Development under the GPRI umbrella.
  • Warning and communication: Effective early warning systems, as well as education of the population have been proven to be effective to diminish loss of human lives and economic losses. A clear example is given by the response of the population in Japan during the 2011 Tohoku earthquake. Clearly, there is an opportunity to not only improve current tools, but also to extend those to areas and populations other than Japan, and to hazards other than earthquakes and tsunamis.
  • Recovery and Mitigation: Resilient communities are able to absorb and/or adapt quickly to change and crisis. What seems to be needed is: Emergency preparedness; reduction of systems vulnerability; effective and robust policies; and robust social support.

Research Projects

The group selected the following two specific projects:

  • Risk – Policy – Education: One of the themes that surfaced in almost all disasters is the disconnect that exists between the existence of real and/or perceived risks, existing or lack of policy about prevention and/or mitigation of the risk(s), and education of population and officials in case of disaster. The project consists of: (1) select one area in the US or in Mexico; (2) map the specific natural hazards in the area including type, intensity, probability of occurrence and risk; (3) develop policies to prevent or mitigate economic and human loss in case of a disaster; and (4) create educational and training modules for the population and for officials in case of a disaster; the modules could include procedures already used in industry such as ICI´s HAZOP (Hazard and Operability Studies) and HAZAN (Hazard Analysis), as well as DuPont´s “What If”,  directed to mitigate natural disasters. The project calls for close collaboration between engineers, policy makers and social scientists.
  • Vulnerability and Recovery of Systems: One of the lessons learned from Katrina is that the approach that engineers use to determine the safety or the probability of failure of a given structure may not be appropriate. Failures may be compounded, may be due to failures of components that are considered minor and thus may require a small factor of safety, and may have multi temporal and spatial effects on the social and economic fabric. What is needed is a change of paradigm where risk is ascertained based on a systems approach, where all components are inter-connected. The project calls for close participation between engineers, policy makers, economists and social scientists. This is a good project to involve Ignacio Grossmann from CMU.