When Mother Nature Attacks: The Role of Construction Before and After a Natural Disaster

Natural disasters are a part of every person’s life. No matter where we live, we are all susceptible to at least one type of natural disaster or another. Floods, tornadoes, landslides, extreme droughts, earthquakes, and even avalanches threaten human life all the time. As each hurricane and wildfire season comes and goes, one thing is clear: we can’t do a thing to stop Mother Nature. So how do we protect ourselves from natural disaster?

One way to mitigate the damage caused by these natural disasters is by designing and building solid structures that can withstand whatever Mother Nature throws our way. In this way, we help mitigate the losses experienced during a natural disaster, and hopefully, at the end of the day, help more people survive. Let’s take a closer look at the role and responsibility of construction when it comes to natural disasters, and how contractors can help ensure safety and stability.

Economic impact

In 2017, the United States experienced one of the worst hurricane seasons on record. The Houston area was hit by Hurricane Harvey, resulting in the total loss or devastation of many area homes and businesses. The price tag for these damages? Roughly $125 billion. In Puerto Rico, which also experienced billions of dollars’ worth of damages due to Hurricane Irma, a great deal of infrastructure, as well as buildings and homes, have yet to be rebuilt.

While hurricanes tend to be the most expensive natural disasters that Americans have to deal with, they aren’t the only ones we’re susceptible to. In 1994, a devastating earthquake hit Los Angeles, causing over $45 billion in damages, the costliest earthquake in U.S. history. In 2011, a tornado in Joplin, MO, became the costliest in U.S. history, to the tune of $2.8 billion. Blizzards also cost Americans billions of dollars every year in snow removal, time lost, and sometimes, destruction of buildings.

Additionally, the incidences of natural disasters around the world are on the rise. Of the most expensive and destructive natural disasters to occur during the 20th century, 10 occurred in the 1970s, 25 in the 1980s, and 65 occurred in the 1990s. There is no denying that Mother Nature seems to be getting angrier with every passing decade. The instances of natural disasters around the world are only expected to increase as time goes on.

While individuals are often forced to pay many out-of-pocket costs after a natural disaster, the government must also pay to rebuild roads and bridges, repair or rebuild government buildings, and replenish their supplies for the next emergency. All of these costs tend to add up, making Mother Nature a very expensive force to contend with. 

However, all of this rebuilding offers an opportunity for construction companies. Not only will homes and businesses need to be rebuilt, but they’ll need to be made stronger and more able to stand up to the next natural disaster. Better building translates to more money for construction companies.

In addition to getting busier in the wake of a natural disaster, construction companies also need to build smarter. Utilizing new technologies is the best way to prevent total destruction when the next hurricane, blizzard, or tornado comes around.

The evolution of construction

Structures, whether they’re homes or businesses, were built to protect humans from the elements. Early mankind lived in rudimentary housing made of items such as mud, stone, or straw. As time went on, and humans evolved and began to understand more about the elements and the world around them, housing and architecture in general also evolved.

That tradition continues today. Every year, more and more advancements are made in the world of construction in order to make buildings as safe as possible. Additionally, construction sites themselves have to remain compliant with certain safety rules, making these sites far safer for workers than they were even 20 years ago. 

Major innovations in construction

Over the last 100 years, we have seen a lot of changes to the way buildings are designed and constructed. We’ve witnessed the invention of machines to help make building easier, computer programs to aid in design and collaboration, and even learned how to use tools we already have in new and different ways. Here are just a few examples of advancements in construction technology and how they help mitigate loss and damages caused by natural disasters. 

  1. Mechanization
    Construction was largely manual until the mechanization of the industry. In addition to making life in general easier and more convenient, the construction industry was also given its largest boost. With the advent of machines such as concrete mixers, cranes, and power tools, we were able to build better, stronger structures more consistently, making them sturdier and more able to withstand natural disasters.

  2. Computer-aided design (CAD)
    When it comes to design, it wasn’t until we added computers to the mix that we were able to see clashes in design and construction. For example, with so many separate systems competing for the same space, it was often difficult to proactively avoid conflicts prior to the building phase, leaving contractors to deal with resolving design errors on-site. With the advent of CAD, it became simple. This advancement helps us understand, before even beginning construction, how well a building will hold up to the elements. 

  3. Building information management (BIM)
    Just as CAD changed the world in its day, BIM has changed everything for designers and contractors today, enabling them to more easily collaborate on building projects. BIM brings mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and all other construction professionals together throughout the entire constructible workflow, allowing them to easily see where there are deficiencies in a project, and opportunities to make structures stronger. Combined with the tremendous amount of data BIM models both create and utilize, structures can actually be “tested” against computer simulations of hurricane-force winds or earthquake tremors before one brick is even laid. This allows for safer, more sound structures to be built with fewer problems down the road.

  4. Self-repairing concrete
    We’ve all seen images of concrete buildings collapsing after a particularly nasty disaster. Enter self-repairing concrete. This brand new invention is meant to repair itself when it cracks using a mixture of bacteria and nutrients, making it more able and ready to stand up in the face of Mother Nature’s wrath.   

  5. Jobsite management applications
    This essential resource for site managers helps manage time-delegated workflows, tracks jobsite progress, and keeps sites safe from those who shouldn’t be there. This cloud-based surveillance and access control technology provides jobsite safety and security managers a suite of tools that can make their jobs easier and more effective. In the event of a natural disaster or similar emergency, it can be a precious lifeline providing real-time updates on where all the workers are, and speeding up the process of contacting them or their emergency contacts.

It’s important for construction companies to keep up with new technology and innovations. Not only does innovation drive the industry forward, it also helps construction companies build smarter, more reliable buildings that are less likely to fail when a natural disaster bears down upon them. 

How construction can help… 

… before a natural disaster 

Disaster can strike at any given time no matter where you live. That’s why it’s important for everyone to ensure they’re prepared for a disaster. This extends beyond just having an emergency kit and homeowners insurance (though these things are also vitally important). Construction plays a part in the way we prepare for emergencies. 

Local building codes are designed to ensure that new builds can stand up to the elements and potential hazards common to that area of the country. However, going above and beyond these codes can ensure even stronger structures that will better withstand these hazards. For example, if you live or work in California, and are in an area prone to earthquakes, it can be invaluable to do a seismic upgrade, which will better prepare your structure for what may come. 

No matter where your build is located, ensuring the resilience of the design can be critical to the survival of the structure, and even the survival of its inhabitants. Resilient design is defined by the ability of a structure to respond to natural or manmade disasters. While this may add cost, it will also ensure buildings or homes are able to more easily recover in the wake of a natural disaster. 

Preparing a building for any disaster nature might throw our way isn’t impossible. It may, however, require some convincing when discussing job specifications with customers. Making this a priority when bidding on jobs can pay strong dividends over time. 

In addition to going above and beyond building codes and designing resilient buildings, contractors need to rely more heavily on recent innovations, such as BIM. These software technologies help builds run more efficiently by identifying problems during the design or planning stages, before anyone’s life is at risk. 

… after a natural disaster

Disaster recovery is perhaps the most difficult part of a natural disaster for survivors. Not only do victims have to deal with the loss of homes, jobs, businesses, and potentially family members and pets, but they must also try to find a way to rebuild. 

Finding ways to fortify damaged buildings and rebuild stronger structures in the wake of natural disaster could be critical to their survival in future disasters. It seems like every disaster that strikes teaches us something new or reinforces lessons we’ve learned in the past. For example, after Hurricane Sandy ravaged Manhattan in 2012, builders learned not to put mechanical and electrical equipment in the basement of buildings, as flooded buildings went without power for several weeks in some cases. 

After a natural disaster, the public turns to contractors and the construction industry to help them rebuild their lives. Contractors can, in turn, go above and beyond to keep improving structures as they are repaired and rebuilt. More reinforcement, higher quality materials, and extra attention to detail can help buildings survive the next disaster Mother Nature throws their way. Additionally, the utilization of new and innovative technologies can be vital to survival. 

Conclusion

Natural disasters are a part of life. We will all experience one at least once in our lives, whether it’s an extreme blizzard, a hurricane, a tornado, or any of the other natural disasters commonly experienced around the world. Our ability to survive these natural disasters depends largely on the stability of the structures in which we live and work. 

Construction plays a vital role in protecting us from the elements, including the impact of natural disasters. It’s up to designers, building supply manufacturers, and builders to ensure they’re following local codes, utilizing the latest construction innovations, and favoring higher quality building materials, even in the face of added cost, to ensure structures are strong enough to withstand anything. Innovations in construction are happening every day. Are you ready to move forward? 

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