How can we “build back better” after the disaster?
By Robert Muir-Wood
Although tragic for everyone involved, some good can come from a devastating disaster as it does provide a unique opportunity to transform the building stock, and to “build back better”. Typically, many structures will have been demolished, or need to be removed. There will also be funding, whether it is via insurance payments, assistance grants and even international aid, to help support improvements. From an island in the Caribbean to a city in central Mexico, we could now institute these profound upgrades, so that for any repeat earthquake or hurricane, the damage and losses will be much reduced. Ironically, a disaster creates the best of all times to make improvements.
There is one small problem.
A disaster also creates the worst of all times to change the built environment. There is a need for speed, to get back to normality and it is understandable that political leaders would not want to place any barriers in the way of people wanting to quickly fix their houses and kick-start the economy. For the islands in the Caribbean savaged by Irma and Maria, kick-starting the economy means re-opening the stores and making enough cosmetic repairs to be able to welcome back the tourists and the visiting cruise liners. No-one is in the mood to wait around and improve a building code for example, which potentially could take quite a lot of time.
We can already see this argument working its way through many of the places worst hit by the 2017 hurricanes. Whether this is to elevate buildings out of the flood zone in Houston or raising wind design code standards in Dominica, the political instinct will be to remove any barrier in the path of rapid reconstruction.
In contrast with its neighbor the U.S Virgin Islands, the British Virgin Islands has had a long-term policy of installing electricity lines underground. Thanks to underground cabling, power was quickly restored to the main hospital and to some of the most critical parts of its economy including the banking and commercial centers in Road Town and around Wickham’s Cay on Tortola. The focus is now on restoring power to supermarkets and the airport. However, Mark Vanterpool, Minister of Communications and Works for the British Virgin Islands has admitted it will take six months to restore power to everyone. Now would be a good time to consider extending the underground network, but installing cables below ground has proved expensive (six times more than overhead) and unpopular for all the disruption it causes. So rather than the reconstruction of the electricity supply system being “build back better” it will “build back the same” with all its vulnerabilities to the next big hurricane hit.
There was an identical situation in 2004 after Hurricane Ivan sent Cat 4 winds and a storm surge into Grand Cayman. The imperative to recover the tourist economy meant there was no attempt to change the rules and require reconstruction to be raised above the height of the eight-foot storm surge that flooded almost the entire raised reef island. It was only in the following years that new construction was raised above this threshold.
Things get easier when the need to fix properties does not lie across the critical path to economic recovery. For Superstorm Sandy, FEMA was able to delay the reconstruction of badly damaged beach front properties — many of them second homes — until a new base flood elevation had been agreed.
Improving temporary solutions
I discussed this conundrum with a couple of leading disaster anthropologists from China last weekend, and they offered a different perspective. Temporary disaster accommodation has now got so good in Japan as well as in China, that they believe if the situation was carefully explained, local residents would be prepared to wait and move into a stronger house than simply return to a repaired house that was so badly damaged in the disaster. Erecting parks of large heated tents after an earthquake in Japan may present fewer risks than on a Caribbean island (especially if the tents will be occupied through another hurricane season). But the response is interesting – maybe we should try harder to argue for making the transformation at the time of the disaster and not give in to the political arguments where economic recovery is the number one priority.
And if a disaster delivers near total destruction it may make it easier to argue for an upgrade. After the Great Fire of London in 1666, there was no point in proposing rapid repairs, as the entire wooden building stock had gone up in smoke. Something similar might apply to the island of Barbuda — Antigua’s little sister island (2016 population: 1700) — where Hurricane Irma destroyed over 90 percent of the buildings. Power grids, phone lines and a water treatment plant are all devastated, and the whole population has currently been removed from the island. Philmore Mullin, director of the National Office of Disaster Services for Antigua and Barbuda, has admitted that the building code on Barbuda had been widely ignored. With Barbuda, there is an opportunity to “build back so much better” so the construction could even withstand a repeat of Super Cat 5 Hurricane Irma.
Simply building back what existed before is a huge missed opportunity, which will eventually have consequences. The next time an intense hurricane rolls through the northern Caribbean, the same buildings will be demolished and more people will die. Improved temporary accommodation for residents in the worst impacted islands could help buy the time to achieve long term resilience.