Over the past few weeks, we have heard of several tropical storms along the Coast of the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, devastating wildfires in Hawaii, an earthquake in Morocco, and droughts in the American West amid a record-breaking year of extreme heat in 2023.
We often think of civil engineers as designing buildings to resist and withstand a certain wind speed, specifying a certain finished floor elevation to resist flooding or certain foundations to resist earthquakes and other seismic activity — all preventative measures ahead of a severe weather event or natural disaster.
But did you know that when disaster strikes, civil engineers are often part of the team that comes to the rescue to assist with safety, analyze failure modes of structures, and learn from the disasters to design more resilient buildings and structures?
In today's post, we explore the role of civil engineers as first responders and part of the post-disaster rescue and recovery team.
The Role of Civil Engineers When Disasters Happen
Any disaster, whether natural or man-made, impacts the built infrastructure within the community in which the disaster occurs. This is where the role of the civil engineer comes in.
As civil engineers, especially licensed professional engineers (PE), we are responsible for upholding public health and safety. The community looks to civil engineers to ensure that the infrastructure we use in our daily lives — buildings, roads, bridges, wastewater treatment plants and sewer systems, stop lights, and intersections — are all designed and operated in a way that ensures public safety.
After a disaster, civil engineers are often called in to conduct damage assessments on public buildings, roads, bridges, and infrastructure. They are called upon to collaborate with scientists and environmental health professionals to ensure that drinking water treatment plants and supplies are functional and safe for human consumption and that sanitary sewer treatment plants are operational and functioning properly.
Commonly, during flood events, wastewater treatment plants and the sanitary sewer system in the affected area can become backed up and overflow, resulting in sewage on the streets and above ground surfaces.
Another reason why no one should enter into flood waters!
Depending on the severity of the event, civil engineers may even be called upon to team up with local rescuers, building and other town planning and city officials to conduct damage assessments on private homes and businesses. This scenario is common after a large-scale and severe disaster such as an earthquake, flood, or other such event where people have to evacuate.
These damage assessment findings will inform community officials, who can, in turn, inform residents whether or not it is safe to return to their homes and businesses. If it is unsafe, this team will inform residents what necessary repairs will be required in order to be able to safely return to occupy the structure.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has developed the Urban Search & Rescue (US&R) Program. US&R is a multi-hazard discipline that involves the location, extrication, and initial medical stabilization of victims trapped or missing because of a man-made or natural disaster.
The US&R is divided into regional units designated as a Task Force consisting mostly of firefighters and emergency medical services (EMS) personnel. Each Task Force has a position called a Structures Specialist, which requires a Professional Engineer (PE) license and several years of experience in structural engineering.
The Structures Specialists deploy with the task force and conduct damage assessments and analyze a building's structural integrity to determine if it is safe for a team of rescuers and their canine search dog counterparts to enter to search and rescue victims or further analyze the structure for safety.
A few examples of FEMA US&R Teams deployments include the 9/11 terrorist attacks in NYC in 2001, Hurricane Sandy in New York and New Jersey in 2012, Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Louisiana in 2017, and the Surfside Condo Collapse in Miami in 2021, just to name a few.
Learning from Failures
Finally, both natural and man-made disasters present an opportunity in civil engineering to learn from failures.
While we would never want any of these incidents to occur, when they do, civil engineers can use these events as an opportunity to refine designs and increase safety redundancies to ultimately create safer, stronger, and more resilient structures.
Building codes governing first-floor elevations may be increased based on increased flood frequency and heights. Wind-resistant load ratings for buildings may be increased in areas prone to tropical storms and hurricanes. Fire codes will be looked at and may be updated in response to high-density buildings and dwelling units. Modes of failures causing structural collapse may result in new construction methods or technologies based on a geographical area and the hazards the area experiences — for example increased foundational and structural requirements in areas with frequent seismic activity and earthquake potential.
Learning from failure is crucial to the continued success and increased public safety of civil engineering. Licensed professional engineers continue to iterate building designs, learning from previous failures to prevent future tragedies.
All of us here at Civil Engineering Academy are here to help you every step of the way towards becoming a licensed PE — acing both those FE and PE Exams! Civil Engineering Academy Breadth and Depth courses were the keys to success on my journey, and I invite you to check them out. We’ll see you there!
Author: Matt Fanghella, PE, CFM