We’re all familiar with the unapologetically morbid tale of the three little pigs. The first pig builds his home from straw, and a big, bad, hungry wolf blows the house down and…well, we don’t feel that much sympathy for the piglet. That’s what you get, we think, for building your house out of straw. The second pig meets the same end after throwing together a house of sticks, which the wolf still manages to destroy before capturing dinner. The third pig constructs his house from bricks, which withstand all the huffing and puffing, and the wolf goes hungry while his intended meal stays safely inside.
The intended moral is a reinforcement of stranger danger, yet it illustrates another point quite succinctly: good building materials matter. The wave of natural disasters that have rocked the world in the last decade have dramatically highlighted the necessity of implementing effective construction management techniques. Furthermore, the use of appropriate building materials is absolutely necessary in order to keep safe the piglets–er, people–whom the buildings house. Let’s take a look at three of the worst natural disasters in recent history, and how inadequate construction contributed to their detrimental effects.
Indian Ocean Tsunami (December 2004)
The epicenter of the Sumatra-Andaman earthquake off the west coast of Indonesia struck with a magnitude between 9.1 and 9.3, triggering a series of tsunamis harboring waves nearly 100 ft. high. The waves devastated coastal communities of more than 14 countries, including Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and India. Approximately 230,000 people were killed.
Banda Aceh, Indonesia after the 2004 tsunami. Image credit National Geographic.
While not actually built of straw, the buildings in the affected coastal areas were blown apart as easily as if they had been. In Banda Aceh, Indonesia (roughly 150 miles from the earthquake’s epicenter), an estimated one-third of all buildings were destroyed. Poorly constructed dwellings and insufficient building materials are at least partly to blame.
Engineers and architects continuously work on building designs that will stand better chances of surviving tsunamis and minimize the damage they inflict. For instance, a research group at MIT determined that elevated structures built above open foundations are better in areas where flooding occurs frequently because the lack of walls alleviates pressure that would otherwise build up from trapped water. Additionally, in the event of high water levels, people can climb up to safety. Reinforced concrete structures hold up to damages far better than lumber houses. However, concrete is costly and the bottom line is always a factor in any construction plan. An effective option in developing countries would be to build wooden or bamboo structures solidified by concrete and rebar columns. Finally, orientation of the building itself matters, too: walls should be oriented in the direction of water flow.
Hurricane Katrina, Gulf Coast, USA (August 2005)
While poor countries suffer most from natural disasters, developed nations are not immune. Consider Hurricane Katrina, which hit the U.S. Gulf Coast and killed nearly 2,000 people. Serious damages occurred as a result of flooding in New Orleans, Louisiana when the city’s levee system–designed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers–failed catastrophically. Breeches left 80% of the city flooded. Several major investigations of the levee system concluded that it failed due to inadequate design and an over-estimation of the strength of the soil used to construct the levee.
Rock, stone, sandbags, concrete, and sheet-pile closure were used to patch up the breeches in the New Orleans canal system, while several pumps worked to drain the city. At length, canals were drained so permanent repairs to the levee could be made. Since Hurricane Katrina, the U.S. has invested more than $14 billion in the New Orleans area, proving that it is far better to have constructed a levee system properly the first time, paying attention to the appropriate use of building materials and adhering to correct civil engineering principles.
Tōhoku Earthquake, East Japan (March 2011)
In what Prime Minsister Naoto Kan called the worst crisis Japan had faced since WWII, a 9.0 earthquake spurred tsunamis with waves peaking at 130 feet that traveled six miles inland, leaving more than 20,000 people dead or missing. Besides structural damages to roads, railways, and buildings, widespread nuclear meltdowns occurred after cooling systems failed at the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant. Mass radiation leaks led to evacuation of the surrounding areas. The industrial catastrophe rated at the maximum level 7 on the International Nuclear Events Scale.
Japan’s nuclear plants were supposedly engineered to withstand a magnitude 8.2 earthquake, while seawalls were built to deter a 19-foot tsunami. Yet, the Tōhoku Earthquake was eight times more powerful and the ensuing tsunami bowled over the ineffectual seawall, causing the devastating meltdowns, explosions, and radiation leaks. Nuclear safety standards and engineering principles were demonstrably lacking. Tsunami risks should have been taken into account long ago, particularly after the Indian Ocean Tsunami. Those safety mechanisms that were put into place were inadequately engineered and inattentively constructed.
In disastrous situations, blame is lobbed about like a baseball from engineers to builders to politicians and officials. The problem with natural disasters is that they are not the result of a conniving carnivore, but rather, they are difficult to predict and tough to guard against. Ideally, every nation would have the ability to safeguard their homes and people against the disasters that nature is most likely to throw at them. Unfortunately, many developing nations lack the funding and resources to implement sound building techniques and with appropriate materials.
Sadly, outside of fairy tales, bricks are not always the answer. There may be no way to completely disaster-proof a building, but we can utilize effective methods of architecture, engineering, and construction management to build safer cities. While there is no absolute insurance against nature, we should use our resources to hold off the wolf as best we can.