Climate events can have a devastating impact on communities, causing significant damage to homes, businesses, and infrastructure — disrupting daily life, and leaving many displaced.
In the wake of recent earthquakes in California, ninety-five homes were damaged, leaving over a hundred people displaced without water and electricity. Days later, a series of ‘atmospheric rivers” causing flooding and mudslides threatens to displace over 10,000 more, and climatologists say catastrophic rain events will only become more common in this part of the world, as the earth’s atmosphere warms.
Despite an uptick in devastating climate events, our efforts to rebuild have not adequately evolved. Five years post-Katrina, only 75% of insured households who received federal aid were “fully recovered.”
A decade later, it took nearly a year to reconnect electricity for the 1.5 million households who lost it during Hurricane Maria. A year after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, only 4.7% of housing had been repaired or replaced.
Post-disaster relief and reconstruction of critical infrastructure is an arduous task, and even the most well-intentioned efforts often fall flat. The involvement and coordination of numerous stakeholders, who may have differing motivations and goals, can complicate processes when there isn’t transparent collaboration.
Funding issues also play a part. An Urban Institute review of federal funding in the wake of natural disasters found that the average wait time for FEMA assistance and long-term housing aid from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development was nearly two years. At the 5-year mark, more than half of funded projects were less than 90% complete.
That’s still a winning scenario in comparison to other parts of the world, however. Corruption, mismanagement, and misappropriation of funds are exceedingly common, especially when relief efforts span wide geographic and cultural boundaries.
The failure of post-earthquake relief efforts in Haiti are a classic example of how a lack of understanding of local practices and regulations can derail redevelopment. The inability to adequately respect, engage, and involve local leadership in post-disaster aid and reconstruction efforts led to challenges that exhausted resources and left many survivors permanently displaced.
Post-disaster efforts are especially vulnerable to abuse, and misuse of funds. Mistrust between involved entities can exacerbate challenges posed by corruption, shoddy workmanship, material availability, and funding and budgeting issues. Once the publicity dies down, projects driven by virtue-signaling and media attention often fail, in the absence of transparency and accountability reinforced by public interest.
As the occurrence and intensity of climate-driven disasters escalates, the need for swift, proactive attention becomes more vital. Those who survive initial disasters cannot be expected to thrive without basic resources. Until they are replaced, daily life is disrupted.
Affected families and individuals suffer physically, emotionally, and financially. I know this devastation well, because I experienced it as a child growing up in Lebanon during the civil war. The ability to rebuild lives from this rubble was what first inspired me to pursue a career in the construction industry.
Leaders in construction have the skills and knowledge required to improve our collective response to these crises. We can build strong, resilient infrastructure and communities, and we have an obligation to rise to this challenge. Many of the delays and inefficiencies I witnessed in my childhood could have been avoided with the right resources, planning, and tools. That’s still true, today.
We can start by improving critical infrastructure to be more resilient to natural disasters — an issue that has been acknowledged by governments and community leaders worldwide. President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the United Kingdom’s National Infrastructure Strategy have already set aside significant funding for such infrastructure development and disaster relief.
The time is right for construction industry leaders to engage as supportive, forward-thinking partners. With growth projected to $14.4 trillion by 2030, the construction industry is well-resourced, and our industry experts are well-positioned to act as advisors in efforts that may prevent future devastation.
Building codes and methods should be updated to fortify new construction against extreme conditions — but they won’t be, unless construction leaders emphasize the need to reassess current standards. Our expertise adds weight to proposed changes in legislature and funding that could potentially impact millions. Our voluntary adherence to best practices for improving transparency and corruption prevention will help ensure that disaster funding is actually applied to — and achieves — its intended goals.
Digitized construction, which applies digital tools to improve the process of designing, constructing, and operating a built environment, offers additional solutions. Today’s tools for generative design and construction can help stakeholders analyze, test, review, and assess construction options — identifying the best ways to build swiftly and efficiently, prior to breaking ground. Use of generative tools not only conserves limited resources, it’s far more cost-efficient than traditional methods.
When used effectively, digital construction optimization helps builders improve sustainability, eliminate waste, and reduce the ecological impacts of construction — all while building more durable, resilient, and sustainable housing and infrastructure. By maximizing use of resources such as labor, materials, and equipment, construction professionals can help communities make the most of project funding.
While we have the resources and expertise, the construction industry has historically failed to respond appropriately to climate-related disasters. Too often, our crisis responses arise from a profit-driven mindset, prioritizing short-term relief, and ignoring long-term issues. We build for the moment, and then rebuild again — with no thought for longevity, or sustainability.
It’s time for leaders in the construction industry to rethink disaster response, applying available tools and skills to aid a swift and successful return to normalcy. We need to design and build for long-term sustainability and longevity—not for short-term profits. We must take an active part in shaping governmental policies that prioritize safety, and quality of life.
With a bit of innovation — and a true commitment to helping displaced people — we can provide the frontline support people need right now to safely return to their lives and livelihoods. Together, we can build a safer, more resilient future for the next generation, from the ground up.
René Morkos, Ph.D. is an inventor, founder, adjunct professor at Stanford University, and CEO of ALICE Technologies. He is a second-generation civil engineer with over 23 years of experience in construction, divided between industry and academia.