Interview with Dr. Frederick Krimgold
Pre-disaster planning essential to post-disaster resilience

Dr. Frederick Krimgold is director of the Disaster Risk Reduction Program, Advanced Research Institute, at Virginia Tech. Dr. Krimgold has served as co-director of the World Institute for Disaster Risk Management and as a consultant to the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery of the World Bank. He has also served as a member of the Building Research Board of the National Research Council and the Federal Emergency Management Agency Advisory Board.



Frederick Krimgold

Your global experience with post-disaster rebuilding efforts is extensive. Can you identify why some efforts are more successful than others?

The most important factor in rapid and competent recovery is pre-disaster planning.

I know that sounds like a contradiction, but in fact it is the existence of mitigation plans and pre-event relationships and planning that make response and recovery effective. To rebuild resilient infrastructure, competent planning, regulation, and urban design in the pre-disaster period are essential.

The other important factor is a coordinated recovery effort. There is a segmentation of activities following a disaster—emergency, transitional, and permanent reconstruction—and we can suffer long-term consequences from short-term decisions. It may seem inappropriate to be considering building codes when rescue workers are looking for survivors, but it needs to happen. We must make long-term planning a component of the emergency phase.

How do you assess infrastructure in the pre-disaster planning phase?

Initially, the focus was on the physical design side—architecture, engineering, planning—because it was buildings that fell down and killed people. But recently there’s been a realization that we are totally dependent on infrastructure, especially in urban areas.

This recognition of the functional importance of buildings beyond their structural importance has led to an understanding of the criticality of continued infrastructure function, or the infrastructure service system. For example, after Hurricane Katrina, we saw that a modern hospital building without power, water, sanitation, and communications is just a building. It’s no longer a hospital.

So you have to look at interdependencies for a more accurate evaluation of vulnerabilities?

Yes. We map the infrastructure systems and the intersystem dependencies. For example, if an electric power system loses a substation, we track the implications of that substation loss down the line, looking downstream to see what other functions are affected. It may affect service to a critical pump in the water system or a critical lift station in the sewer system or a critical cell tower in the cellular communication system.

In each case those failures then cascade down to other failures, so that the loss of the water pump could lead to a loss of water pressure for firefighting, cooling in a communication system, or water supply to a medical facility.

These less-than-obvious interdependent relationships have been a very important consideration in infrastructure system design. Once you uncover them, you can anticipate how they will function in a disaster and look for alternative means to provide the same service, such as power from different sources or an increase in storage capacity. Looking at ways to reduce the vulnerability of individual systems is now a major focus of work in this area.

Is resilient infrastructure possible when financial resources are tight?

Resilience may not be as expensive as some imagine; it can be achieved for as little as 5 percent of the total construction cost. It is largely dependent on understanding urban infrastructure as a series of interdependent systems. That is a software—rather than a hardware— consideration.

How important is the role of regulation in building resilient infrastructure?

For the last 30 years, we have systematically underestimated the regulatory necessities of urban development, which include planning of infrastructure, provision of infrastructure services, planning of construction, and the regulation of construction.

The world has seen very rapid urbanization, with an enormous population influx from the countryside into cities all around the world. We’re now more than 50 percent urban. And in many cases, that urbanization has taken place without planning or formal building regulation.

We have to recognize that cities are complex organisms that require a regulatory system, just like the human body. For example, we tend to think of the fire service as fire engines and sirens and hoses and squirting water. But if you really want to understand what has reduced fire loss, it is building codes and inspectors who have reduced the incidence of fire in the first place. We have—through careful, considered, and sophisticated legal and regulatory processes—virtually eliminated the specter of urban conflagration in the US.

And that’s the parallel we have to build on.

What are some the challenges of rapid urbanization combined with lack of regulation?

In Haiti, the typical rural dwelling was a self-constructed single-family house. When people moved to Port au Prince, they brought that tradition with them. It wasn’t a city of 2.5 million; it was a village of 2.5 million. There was no functioning building code or regulation at the time of the earthquake. It took three years for the government to subscribe to the international construction code and the international residential code.

In the context of recovery and reconstruction, we have to set objectives in evolutionary terms. We have to look at what’s been seriously missing in the pre-disaster context, and ask, “How do we ensure that in the reconstruction, we’re building in the right order?”

We have to start at the foundation and build up rather than building a superstructure with no foundation. Because the management of urban systems is a sophisticated endeavor.

What kind of progress has been made in preparing for disasters over the last several decades?

We have the ability, through the natural sciences—seismology, meteorology, climatology, and hydrology—to have well-developed predictive capacity and mapping. In fact in many parts of the world— even in developing countries— adequate hazard maps now exist.

We also have robust engineering, architectural, and planning research over a number of years. So we know what will work. We know what it takes to significantly reduce damage and loss of life.

We have the knowledge but we need to get better at applying it.

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