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Civil Engineer blog

Disasters: how civil engineers can help, and not just afterwards

10 December 2018

Civil engineers are well placed to help communities recover from disasters as well as protecting them before they occur. Carlos Molina Hutt of the University of British Columbia and Mark Scorer and Josh Macabuag of charity Saraid explain.

Disasters: how civil engineers can help, and not just afterwards
Image credit: Shutterstock

Natural and artificial disasters involve widespread losses, seriously disrupt society and often require international assistance to recover. The former is becoming more frequent worldwide due to a greater number of extreme events linked with climate change and increasing vulnerability of an urbanising and growing population.
There are four distinct phases of disaster management – mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery – and civil engineers have a key role to play in each.
Traditionally, the profession’s greatest contribution is linked to the recovery phase, such as carrying out repair and reconstruction work of damaged buildings and infrastructure – and often on a volunteer basis.
However, civil engineers can also make significant contributions to the other phases as well.

Mitigation and preparedness

 In their day-to-day work, civil engineers play a vital role in the implementation of infrastructure resilience. This ranges from designing and building flood defences to reducing the vulnerability of structures at risk, from key infrastructure to housing.
For instance, in seismic design, civil engineers can adopt technologies including base isolation, supplemental damping devices or fuse components where damage is concentrated during an earthquake but can be easily replaced to restore building functionality promptly.
In addition, they can play a key role in helping communities become more resilient.
For example, volunteering for a range of charities and non-government organisations provides a mechanism for the profession to apply its knowledge and experience to deliver much-needed training to communities at risk.
A recent example had civil engineers from the charity Saraid delivering engineering awareness and search-and-rescue training for the Civil Protection and Emergency Situations Service in Moldova.
The initiative was sponsored by the Worshipful Company of Firefighters Charitable Trust organised in conjunction with Fire Aid, an association of UK charities.

Response and recovery

Following a damaging event such as an earthquake, urban search-and-rescue engineers need to assess whether a collapsed building is safe to enter and devise the safest way to breach the structure to reach trapped casualties.
Civil engineers can also contribute to emergency response efforts by carrying out post-earthquake safety evaluations, classifying buildings according to the risk that the damage may pose to occupants and surrounding areas.
An example is the rapid post-earthquake safety evaluations carried out in Ecuador following the April 2016 earthquake – members of the Institution of Civil Engineers were part of both the UK and European response teams.
The transition into the recovery phase is also facilitated by more detailed engineering damage assessments, plus civil engineers have a central part to play in all parts of the reconstruction, where the emphasis must be ‘build back safer’.
When carrying out such activities, it is important to communicate the life-safety objective implicit in modern building codes and, where appropriate, adopt a resilience-based design approach that goes beyond minimum code requirements.

Improving resilience

Bringing civil engineers’ core technical and managerial competencies to bear on all phases of the disaster cycle will improve community resilience around the world. It will contribute to more stable socio-economic systems within which to operate and improve the lives of many.
This article is based on the authors’ briefing article in the latest issue (174 CE4) of the ICE Civil Engineering journal.