Discussing current issues in engineering
Reeling from yet another natural disaster of catastrophic proportions, the US looks to the challenges in the South with exhaustion, relief, sadness, hope, and perseverance. The human condition, however adverse to change we think we are, has an uncanny ability to recover, adapt, and thrive time and time again. Even so, this dynamically precarious state of perceived reliability and safety provided by our infrastructure is an ever-thinning veil of comfort.
Perhaps, the sheer magnitude of what we face with respect to climate change is simply not able to be fully realized. Maybe the trust of the American people in antiquated infrastructure systems is too great. Although, positively, it may be something else entirely…
Throughout the previous decade, the world has watched history unfold as disasters such as Superstorm Sandy (2012), a once-every-500-year pluvial event in Michigan (2014), hurricanes Harvey (2017) and Michael (2018), a record-breaking 5 major storms in the Gulf (2020), and now the wrath of Ida (2021), ravage the terrain. The detrimental intensity of these natural upheavals consistently pushes the boundaries of what our society can withstand.
Currently, we are in the midst of a paradigm shift as epically proportionate as 21st century superstorms. Modifications in behaviors, mindset, and industrial progress are barreling through the engineering sector in the form of resilience engineering. Resilience, defined as “the ability to spring back into shape”, is an American ideal permeating to our culture’s core. New to the scene, resilience engineering is taking that nucleic ethos and applying it to design, maintenance, and restoration objectives for buildings, infrastructure, and our communities. The image of a single flower growing out of a sidewalk crack should no longer be the poster image conjured in our minds. Instead, picture a punching bag that always rights and centers itself no matter the blow.
As Ida’s destruction is fresh in our forethought it’s only natural to envision coastal resilience as the primary pinch point of infrastructure durability. However, the modern pressures on engineering cannot pigeonhole the sect into narrowly focusing on a single element of the changing climate and landscape. Resilience engineering works to address evolving threats to infrastructure, changing environmental thresholds resulting in extreme weather events, and disrupted timelines for necessary improvements regardless of size.
Crossing traditional disciplinary boundaries has become a foundational tool for civil and environmental engineers, and reliance on cooperative approaches will only increase. Tandem planning efforts for land use, environmental considerations, social and equity factors together inform infrastructure design and systems within resilience engineering.
Therefore, the not-so-streamline path of progress has been diverted, requiring a fresh focus on the first principles of the new paradigm. The foundation of today’s engineering has been trained to balance loads versus capacities and evaluate cost-benefit optimization. Through resilient design, engineers will begin to fill the cracks by; integrating physical and social design considerations, quantifying, and incorporating uncertainty, use system-level approach to plan for infrastructure diversity and redundancy, and explicitly defining adaptive options within design decisions.
There to meet the needs of the community, civil and environmental engineers can adapt to replace traditional standards-based approaches with risk informed project plans, providing tangible technical solutions for sustainable, resilient progress.
It may seem, at times, that we have strayed too far, and the wobble has turned in to a topple, and the complexity of system inter-dependencies, regulatory constraints, the evolving nature of hazards, the limitations of conventional engineering solutions, and the humbling effort required to work across disciplines is just too heavy a burden to embrace. However, we cannot stagnate. It is clear the data of the 20th century can no longer inform the resilience planning of the future.
The inadvertently short-sighted planning, development and disaster policy of the U.S. is now barely operating as a broken crutch bowing under the atmospheric pressure of climate change, population growth, and technological acceleration. This is an advantage for engineers though. The ability to leverage risk informed approaches in order to mitigate flooding and reduce hurricane or other natural disaster impacts further fuels the resilience paradigm shift, emphasizing recovery instead of loss reduction.
But how is resilience measured?
The first study defining the components of resilience was the Resilience Measurement Index. However, it largely missed the mark by failing to address ability of engineered systems to adapt. But, like humans, adaptability needs to be built into the code, the structural DNA so to speak, of the policies, ordinances, regulations, and expectations of foundational infrastructure resilience planning across community scales. Statistical assessments for measuring the level of resilience such as the Critical Infrastructure Elements Resilience Assessment (CIERA) and the HAZUS Resiliency Evaluation are only two great places to start incorporating into planning methodologies.
Resilience engineering is a cyclic process with a need for assessment and reassessment of the systems throughout their life. Quantification of resilience has to divert focus from the sticker shock of the damage and look to future cost saving. Mutating building codes, a much less taboo practice than the typical sense of the work, could ubiquitously create a new “hazard landscape”. Increased adoption and enforcement of the new expressions of civil and environmental engineering DNA will be the rebuilding blocks of natural disaster recovery.
Achieving dynamic stability through resilience planning is not without significant challenges. The geographic size and scope of modern infrastructure, interdependencies between communities, bureaucratic corruption, conflicting regulations, and cascading failures resulting from natural disasters all hinder the resilience engineering movement. However, responsible engineering can’t be accomplished in isolation, nor should it be attempted. Accepting failures within systems, the inability of infrastructure to offer complete protection from disaster, and the inevitability that change is going to happen, will foster the advancement in recognition of our need for resiliency and cognition of the path forward. As engineers, we must ask ourselves from the beginning how we can ameliorate the infrastructure and communities we are a part of by taking a leadership role within the paradigm shift. With this resilient mindset, civil and environmental engineers are perfectly poised to become the “true protagonists” of the rejuvenation of United States urban infrastructure, and stewards of the cities as we all head into the eye of the storm.
Baecher, Gregory, et al. “Resiliently Engineered Flood and Hurricane Infrastructure: Principles to Guide the next Generation of Engineers.” National Academy of Engineering, The Bridge, 1 July 2019, https://www.nae.edu/212181/Resiliently-Engineered-Flood-and-Hurricane-Infrastructure-Principles-to-Guide-the-Next-Generation-of-Engineers
Lu, Xinzheng, et al. "Quantification of disaster resilience in civil engineering: A review." Journal of Safety Science and Resilience 1.1 (2020): 19-30.
Rehak, David, et al. "Complex approach to assessing resilience of critical infrastructure elements." International journal of critical infrastructure protection 25 (2019): 125-138.
“Resilience | Definition of Resilience by Lexico.” Lexico Dictionaries | English, 2019, www.lexico.com/en/definition/resilience.
Colman Engineering, PLC
A professional engineering firm located in Harrisonburg, VA