November/December 2010

Rebuilding after Earthquakes


After every disastrous earthquake, earth scientists and engineers express concern about the process of reconstruction, afraid that the affected locality will miss the opportunity to build back so as to be more resistant to the next inevitable seismic event. Haiti is only the most recent example, and so the question I have been hearing in recent months is this: How can we use scientific knowledge to inform the safe reconstruction of Port-au-Prince?

The response to this question has two parts: 1) the challenges of promoting risk reduction, and 2) the opportunity (though not an unlimited one) of advancing seismic safety in the reconstruction process in the wake of disaster.

Promoting Risk Reduction

Promoting seismic safety is difficult. Earthquakes are not high on the political agenda, because they occur infrequently and are overshadowed by more immediate, visible issues. Even where citizens are aware of seismic risks, taking action to improve seismic safety is difficult because:

  • costs are immediate and benefits uncertain,
  • public safety is not visible,
  • benefits may not occur during the tenure of current elected officials, and
  • seismic safety lacks a significant public constituency.

Nevertheless, seismic safety policies do get adopted and implemented by national, state, and local governments. Many factors are critical to the successful advancement of seismic safety.

At the heart of reconstruction is the tension between speed and deliberation.

The list of factors is long, including factors such as awareness, communication, governmental capacity, community wealth, and availability of resources. But two stand out: 1) the presence of persistent, skillful, and credible advocates, because this represents a way that individuals can make a difference; and 2) occurrence of a disaster that leads to a “window of opportunity” for change, because this tells us when to take action.

With regard to the presence of advocates, the good news for earth scientists is that individuals can make a difference, especially if they are persistent, yet patient; have a clear message; understand the big picture; and work with others. Such examples abound in the United States, in which committed professionals have caused improvements in policies aimed at seismic safety; in fact, whenever such improvements occur, they can always be traced back to the catalyzing effect of such professionals.

The second major factor is the opening of a “window of opportunity,” typically a major earthquake elsewhere that gets the attention of people in one’s community, or a small event felt in the community. Although the appearance of such windows is beyond our control, we can control the groundwork we lay ahead of time. The history of seismic safety policy in the United States directly reflects the history of earthquakes, coupled with the work of advocates.

Post-Disaster Reconstruction

Needless to say, one of the most effective “windows of opportunity” is the process of reconstruction following a disastrous earthquake. The old, earthquake-unsafe construction is gone. Everyone in the city is now well aware of the earthquake hazards they face. And money flows for post-disaster reconstruction. It seems like it should be easy to create a new city, safe from earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, landslides, and other hazards. Unfortunately, our understanding of post-disaster recovery processes tells us that this is not so.

City-building is a long and complex process, involving many individuals, organizations, and institutions. It involves natural forces, economic forces, social forces, and politics. Buildings are the physical manifestation of this complex system. Rebuilding a city struck by disaster is an equally complex process, plus it happens in compressed time. It involves many actors—both individual and collective—all planning and communicating and acting at the same time, all of them working on restoring housing and livelihoods. Think of it as an ecosystem of builders, being fed from outside the system with resources in the form of money and information. Government bureaucracies are ill-suited to the pace and demands of recovery. For this reason, new organizations always emerge, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) expand their function. This is a necessary process, and it is actively occurring in Haiti right now. A primary role of government in recovery is to provide these resources—money and information.

But the recovery process is confusing, because few of the actors have been through it before, and they are insufficiently aware of what the other actors are doing. It’s a dynamic process, in which the one constant is change, that happens very quickly in a compressed time environment. No single entity is in charge, and there is no single solution or single plan that creates the new city.

We all know that disasters provide opportunities to build back better: safer, more equitable, more efficient, more environmentally sound, more technologically advanced. In fact, everyone affected by the disaster knows that, from residents to the head of the government. But experience tells us that large-scale change is unlikely, and that only incremental improvements occur.

At the heart of reconstruction is the tension between speed and deliberation: between the need to rebuild as quickly as possible (to maintain social and economic networks) and the competing need to slow down, ponder the alternatives, and involve as many participants as possible. The paradox of recovery is that speed and deliberation must both occur simultaneously. Although speed is the priority, deliberation that truly involves the community can be even more important. People are willing to go slowly if they trust each other and feel empowered, but such processes are difficult and expensive to accomplish. The best way to add intelligence and deliberation to a fast-moving process is by means of information centers, communication systems, and institutional structures that facilitate communication and collaboration among the various parties. Organizations established to coordinate recovery should be seen as enabling coordination rather than requiring it. Large disasters always involve population resettlement. People initially leave their houses and neighborhoods and eventually transition to permanent housing, sometimes where their home was before and sometimes elsewhere. Government agencies, planners, and environmental scientists always see in resettlement an opportunity to fix mistakes of the past regarding the urban environment as well as its location on the landscape. But such agencies are repeatedly surprised to find that they cannot move people easily. Previous experience tells us that in order to move people, residents must be actively involved in the decision-making regarding both location and construction. This appears to be true everywhere in the world.


So, how can we apply scientific knowledge toward rebuilding a safer Haiti, or wherever the next great earthquake might occur?

First, it is important to accept the fact that most physical features of the city won’t change, and most of the potential opportunities for improvement will be lost. Second, there is no “they” directing the process, no single recovery entity. Thus, the goal needs to be to add intelligence to the dynamic process of rebuilding. This means finding strategic points where and when information can be of value.

…the goal needs to be to add intelligence to the dynamic process of rebuilding.

In the case of a developing nation such as Haiti, I can think of two appropriate tasks: awareness building and long-term capacity building. With so many international agencies poised to help, the real opportunity for post-quake Haiti is in improving the long-term capacity of Haitians to build their homes and cities, to create livelihoods, to manage their environment, and to educate themselves so as to improve the long-term quality of life on their small part of a small island. The U.S. science community can help them to do this by training teachers to improve construction methods. More importantly, scientists should seek to increase the capacity of Haitian universities, by providing equipment and training to faculty and students.

This is long, hard work that will transpire over years. It’s not just about rebuilding Port-au-Prince by 2013 or 2015. The success or failure of scientific assistance to Haiti will not ride on immediate decisions to relocate settlements or institute building codes; rather the measure of success will be in how well Haitians survive sustainably over the next decades, and how well they weather the hurricanes and earthquakes of the future.   

Robert Olshansky Department of Urban and Regional Planning University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign robo [at] illinois [dot] edu


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Posted: 22 October 2010