O'Rourke: Improve infrastructure to withstand natural disasters

Two days after Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast, New York City's bus transportation resurfaced; the New York Stock Exchange reopened; and three days later, the subway system followed suit. But now, more than a month later, parts of New York and New Jersey are still picking up the pieces of Sheetrock and metal in an attempt to return to normal.

The "new normal" for natural disasters is the unforeseen catastrophic consequences of recent natural hazards and the risks they pose for critical infrastructure. "We need to be better prepared. We need to have a shift in our mindset," said Thomas O'Rourke, Cornell's Thomas R. Briggs Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, at a Dec. 12 lecture at the Center for Architecture in New York City.

O'Rourke continued, "We can't be resilient about everything, but we can pick targets," specifically "the infrastructure that is simply too big to fail within a region. For metropolitan New York, it's the transportation and power systems, but for arid Los Angeles, it's the water supply."

To identify a region's critical infrastructure, O'Rourke explained, urban planning discussions must include engineers who provide the technical backbone for infrastructure improvements. He said communities should establish coalitions to deal with a disaster more expeditiously than larger government organizations.

In 2010-11, O'Rourke visited Christchurch, New Zealand, where four earthquakes over 16 months had caused serious repetitive damage to buildings, water supply, wastewater and transportation systems. He was shocked with the enormity of damage from a relatively small 6.2 magnitude earthquake that struck in February 2011.

The earthquake sequence caused $30 billion in direct losses, over 20 percent of the gross national product. But something interesting also resulted.

The water and wastewater distribution systems failed at thousands of locations, but not one part of the gas distribution system suffered. The gas pipelines constructed of medium-density polyethylene (HDPE) endured the shocks.

"This shows that the material and resiliency of your facilities do matter," said O'Rourke. "And we need to champion those resources in our infrastructure." Christchurch has decided to replace its water supply pipelines with HDPE.

This kind of structural overhaul can be costly. "We have to rethink how we're going to bankroll the critical infrastructure that we need," O'Rourke said. "We need to resurrect the idea of an infrastructure bank that merges private and public funds. We need more private-public partnerships."

The consequences of failing to account for risk to critical infrastructure is illustrated by the 2011 earthquake in Tohoku, Japan. This 9.0 magnitude earthquake generated a 10- to 25-centimeter shift in the Earth's axis. But it also brought light to the lack of preparedness of the Japanese nuclear power industry.

Japan's nuclear reactors supplied nearly 30 percent of the country's energy, but after the earthquake struck and the tsunami followed, Japan faces as much as $620 billion in nuclear decontamination and decommissioning costs. Since the earthquake Germany and Switzerland have decided to phase out nuclear energy in favor of alternate power sources.

The United States relies on critical infrastructure, such as the Southern California Water Supply, which comprises three aqueduct systems that cross the San Andreas Fault zone, and the Sacramento River Delta Flood Protection System, which affects the collection and diversion of water from Northern to Southern California. Meanwhile, the San Francisco Auxiliary Water Supply System provides fire protection for a city that is vulnerable to earthquakes and conflagration.

Natural disasters that disrupt our infrastructure lead to severe consequences that "steal our future." To maintain our competitiveness and economic well-being we need to keep improving our infrastructure, said O'Rourke.

The lecture was hosted by the Structural Engineers Association of New York and the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute.

Caroline Shin is a freelance writer in New York City.

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