Interview with Aris Papadopoulos
Investment in resilient infrastructure key to disaster preparedness

Aris Papadopoulos is CEO of Titan America, the US subsidiary of Greece’s Titan Cement Group. He advocates the introduction of resilient standards in the construction industry. Papadopoulos is chair of the Private Sector Advisory Group for the UN International Strategy on Disaster Reduction (UNISDR). The advisory group leads the effort to motivate private sector investment in disaster risk reduction by underscoring its triple return: ensuring business continuity, protecting long-term investments, and partnering with local communities.

Aris Papadopoulos

How well do building codes account for resilience in today’s built environment?

[Editor’s note: The built environment typically refers to the design, construction, management, and use of our human-made surroundings—buildings, park, green space, and supporting infrastructure—that provide the setting for human activity.]

Building codes in force today are simply not resilient enough. They were passed decades ago to mitigate the hazards and weather intensity prevalent then. With those intensity trend lines headed up, the codes do not protect us anymore.

But if you look at the statistics, we are doing much better at saving people’s lives. The approach to disaster risk reduction in the last several decades has been: “How do we put in more alarms? Let’s get the people out and to hell with the structure. We can always rebuild that.” But, as a result of that approach, we’re paying a terrible economic price. People survive, yes, but they end up losing everything—which can really suck the resources out of an economy.

We need more balance. In the next 20 or 30 years, we are going to spend more money on urbanization worldwide than we have spent in our entire history. If our investment isn’t resilient the first time around, we’re going to have to do it over. While Hurricane Andrew in 1992 caused wholesale changes to building codes in Florida, waiting for disasters in order to change public policy is a bad formula.

What do you propose?

The insurance industry is already taking the lead. The Institute for Business and Home Safety (IBHS), a consortium of insurance companies in the US, is testing more resilient infrastructure. They will offer certification similar to the LEED—Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design—certification provided by the US Green Building Council.

The IBHS certification—termed “fortified—will help secure tax credits for those who comply voluntarily with predetermined standards, similar to the LEED program. Unlike LEED certification, however, regional standards for resilient infrastructure will vary by the likelihood and type of disaster.

This is similar to the concerted automobile safety effort mounted by the insurance industry about 50 years ago. Remember watching TV in the 60s and 70s with all the advertising of cars with dummies crashing into barriers? That was the public education front. But the insurance industry also worked to change the law.

As a result of that sustained initiative, safer roads and more resilient automobiles are a reality today. Today, even if you had the option to buy a car without air bags and antilock brakes, you wouldn’t do it. Now, the industry is trying to duplicate that success in the built environment.

What is the best way to effect change in public opinion in order to move the needle on public policy?

Public education is key. Otherwise, people will do what they’ve always done: Rush to rebuild after a disaster. I was very disappointed when, after Hurricane Katrina, I was driving along the coastline and much of Biloxi was being rebuilt in the same way as it had been built before. People have short memories and the education effort has been lacking. It will take some time, but the catalyst is already in place, thanks to the efforts of the IBHS.

They’ve already teamed up with local communities to educate them about their options to build back better while being cost effective: We already know that every dollar spent to make buildings and homes stronger and fortified above code saves $7 later—in public monies spent after the disaster happens.

Unfortunately, when people look at homes, most of them look at the living room and the den and the closet space and the kitchen but they don’t look at what’s behind the walls. That’s a hidden attribute; somehow we need to bring that to the surface.

Having homes and other buildings rated for resilience will help to do that. A consumer will be able to look at two homes and say, “Yes, this one has the bigger family room but the other one is more resilient.”

We also have to stimulate dialogue between private- and public-sector representatives to determine what programs and incentives can help encourage decision-makers to incorporate more resilience into their investments. Resilient investment has to be a core element in the decision-making process. Industry typically has a cost mindset, generally opposing anything that will add to the cost of construction.

But we already know how cost-effective resilient investment is. This is what we need to impress on policymakers, especially because residents always believe they can count on the government to come in and save them after a disaster. Raising awareness before disasters actually occur—reinforcing that 1-to-7 ratio—is what we have to continue doing.

What can you tell us about the efforts of the UNISDR’s Private Sector Advisory Group?

One of our goals is connecting within the private sector across global boundaries, industries, and functions to better collaborate when there’s a common geographic or functional interest. We’re channeling that information into a database, so members can see what company X or country Y is doing. They can also contact each other to share knowledge and leading practices. Ultimately, we want these efforts to help raise awareness to create a voluntary trend toward resilience.

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