For everyone concerned with construction, economic sustainability and disaster resiliency, the first five months of 2011 have been momentous. The quake in Christchurch, New Zealand, reminded us of the need for effective seismic retrofit programs. Japan’s triple disaster and shattered supply chain documented for us again that preparing for just a single disaster scenario does not match real-world events. The record tornado outbreaks proved the value of better warning systems and tornado shelters. And the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden has caused many of us to reflect on actions we have either taken or not taken over the past decade to protect people and buildings from terrorists.

Each of the above has brought us teachable moments. They have also raised questions about protecting life, economic activity and the impact on our economic recovery if we take multiple hits equivalent to the size of the Japan disasters, Hurricane Katrina and the April and Maytornados.

So far, disaster preparation and recovery take place on a piecemeal basis, with interest groups competing against one another for ever more precious public and private-sector funding. Maybe we ought to step back from the legislation and budget drafting sessions, the grant and program planning and implementation meetings. Then we’ll see that these are not individual issues that can be effectively addressed one by one.

I believe that we must avoid stovepipe or picket fence bureaucracies and programs and instead look at each as part of a whole—as part of the fabric of the human condition, not as sudden unexpected events. Sustainability means resiliency and resiliency means sustainability—life and growth.

Robert Wible

In early March in Washington, D.C., ENR, McGraw-Hill Construction and the National Building Museum’s Industry Council for the Built Environment brought together experts to consider effective actions for “Mitigating Disasters Through Design and Construction.” Presenters and moderators from the above communities repeatedly expressed concern over the lack of a holistic approach toward sustainability and disaster resiliency.

They also worried that during the present budget crisis, more well organized and powerful interest groups will eviscerate even a coordinated public outreach campaign on sustainability and disaster resiliency actions.

What emerged from the conference is summarized in a white paper submitted to Congress, but here are my personal ideas and concerns.

Examining Codes

First, while too many communities continue to believe “it won’t happen here,” an increasing number are paying more attention to the disaster resiliency provisions in the building codes they are adopting. Second, there are initial efforts to conduct regional disaster exercises that include more than one simultaneous disaster event. Third, a small but growing number of companies are seeing it as “good business practice” to spend funds to ensure that their buildings (and employees) are more resilient to multiple disaster scenarios.

A panel I moderated recommended that the U.S. produce a cohesive multi-disciplinary approach to the content and updates to building codes and land use regulations to strengthen both disaster resiliency and economic sustainability. The current piecemeal system is confusing, costly and burdensome.

We also suggested that the public and private sector must work together to identify and take actions to streamline the regulatory system to reduce and/or strengthen statutes, rules, regulations, processes and procedures that will speed disaster preparedness and recovery.

There will be more from Mother Nature and from revenge-minded terrorists. If we have learned nothing else from the past five months it is that only thoughtful, coordinated, prioritized national action can effectively mitigate the deaths and damage done to our people and economy.

“It can’t happen here” and “we can’t afford to address the real dangers” never have been and never will be an effective response. Please join our effort to holistically address the lessons that are being learned from our recent catastrophes.