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Post-disaster reconstructionRethinking where/whether to rebuild after Hurricanes Irma, Harvey

Published 14 September 2017

Though our natural instinct is to put everything back exactly where it was before a disaster, Mark Abkowitz, professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of the Vanderbilt Center for Environmental Management Studies said people need to seriously rethink where and how to rebuild. “We’re talking hurricanes now, but it could be inland flooding, tornadoes, drought, wildfires, earthquakes. The question really comes up: If we had things the way they were and they suffered the level of catastrophic impact that they did, what’s the reasoning behind putting it back exactly the way it was before?” asks Abkowitz.

Though our natural instinct is to put everything back exactly where it was before a disaster, Mark Abkowitz, professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of the Vanderbilt Center for Environmental Management Studies said people need to seriously rethink where and how to rebuild.

“We’re talking hurricanes now, but it could be inland flooding, tornadoes, drought, wildfires, earthquakes. The question really comes up: If we had things the way they were and they suffered the level of catastrophic impact that they did, what’s the reasoning behind putting it back exactly the way it was before?” asks Abkowitz.

Abkowitz believes that Harvey and Irma happening in such rapid succession are an indication of what could be in the future. “It’s an unfortunate circumstance, but sometimes it takes a catastrophe of a certain scale for people to wake up and say we need to do something about that.”

Rebuilding isn’t always best
Abkowitz said we need policies to discourage future high-risk development, such as not authorizing public funds to support rebuilding in hazardous areas—at least not without updating structures to better withstand future storms.

“We have to decide where our societal values are, and as much as developers and tourists would love to be right on the beach, whether it’s safer in the long run to put these structures further back.”

Vanderbilt notes that, for example, Abkowitz suggests rebuilding a beach hotel could be more tenable if it’s set a quarter mile back and a boardwalk built for beach access, that way natural barriers and mangroves can be put back in place. And the same is true for houses, he said.

“We’re such an impulse and immediate reaction society. The idea of spending anything, even if it’s a little when you have other things that you think are more urgent, you just keep kicking that can down the road. And then you end up with the results of Harvey and Irma. Hindsight is 20-20, unfortunately.”

Smarter zoning, better maps, more stormwater management
The most impactful immediate change is likely to happen at the local level, Abkowitz said.

“I think a lot of scrutiny should be placed on zoning boards,” he said. “If they’re allowing developers to build in hazardous places, putting the opportunity for tax revenue over personal safety, then shame on them. Someone has to hold them to task.”