10 min read

What is Disaster Resilient Infrastructure? Why is it Needed?

By GovPilot

A historic tornado outbreak in the southeast. Prolonged droughts followed by massive wildfires in the west. Stronger, slower, wetter hurricanes in the gulf and eastern seaboard. Even unnamed and sudden thunderstorms like the derecho that leveled communities in Iowa or the historic rainstorm that flooded Baton Rouge. The list goes on. We've all seen the images of an inundated New Orleans, Houston, and the New Jersey shore following major disasters.

The unfortunate reality is that devastating natural disasters are occurring more often, are more destructive, and are now happening in places with no prior history of disaster due to the impacts of climate change. Even smaller, isolated weather events are causing extensive damage. With increasing development, less water is absorbed in to the ground, and more buildings are in the path of tornadoes and wildfires than ever before.

To make matters worse, many communities have older structures in need of retrofitting to protect them against extreme weather and natural disasters that will inevitably strike. Antiquated infrastructure like government buildings, power grids, and transport infrastructure can be destroyed or rendered inoperable in a matter of minutes. In some cases, old and faulty infrastructure can even cause a disaster. 

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Modern disaster resilient infrastructure is designed to reduce the impact of a major event. Elevated stilts or foundations can keep a home or building out of disastrous flood waters. Earthquake-proof materials and foundations will stop skyscrapers from collapsing in a high magnitude earth tremor. Insulation can protect power grids from temperature extremes. Flood doors can protect subway systems.

But which kinds of resilient design architecture are relevant for your community? And how can your local government afford to implement expensive infrastructure updates municipality wide? 

Knowing which steps your community needs to take can be challenging. Coordination among departments and agencies will be necessary to make needed improvements, but it is not only necessary but achievable. Follow along for important details in mitigating some of your community's vulnerability through physical infrastructure and digital emergency management software.

What is Disaster Resilient Infrastructure?

As the name implies, disaster resilient infrastructure include vital buildings, public communal facilities, transit systems, telecommunications, and power systems that are strategically designed to withstand the impact of a natural disaster like a flood, earthquake, or wildfire. 

Communities building resilient infrastructure in their city or town need to analyze the risk of potential natural disasters, consider which architectural improvements will be most beneficial in their community, and consider a budget and timeline for implementing said improvements. 

Disaster resilient architecture is one of the pivotal aspects of risk management and disaster preparedness

Why Climate Resilience?

In the U.S. and around the world, climate impacts on public health and safety, economies, transportation networks and other critical infrastructure assets are taking a toll as the frequency and destructiveness of weather events increase. The ability of infrastructure systems - many of which were built decades, if not a century ago - to withstand flooding, fires, tornadoes, and as we recently saw in Texas - abnormal temperature extremes is fading. Nature is simply overpowering many of these older infrastructure systems that were not built for the world we currently live in.

Adaptation, retrofitting, and the construction of new resilient infrastructure systems is necessary in order for cities and communities to mitigate the natural hazards that we are increasingly encountering now, and will continue to encounter in the future. 

To help local governments meet this challenge, the Biden administration announced a record injection of money to help communities gird against the effects of climate change, as disasters continue to pummel the United States.

The new funds from Washington — $3.5 billion in grants to states to protect against floods, wildfires and other threats — mark a shift in United States disaster policy as climate change gets worse: Rather than smaller, more targeted investments, the government is throwing huge sums of money at disaster preparation as fast as it can. According to Deanne Criswell, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the goal of the new money is to get local and state officials to broaden their approach to put less emphasis on small-scale projects that fortify individual homes or buildings, and more attention on ways to protect entire communities. 

Worldwide, climate risks are increasing. Aside from major events, we have seen flash flooding caused by extreme weather events in subway systems in New York, London, and China. In Texas, a winter storm nearly destroyed the state's electric grid. Sunny day flooding occurs frequently in Miami as sea levels rise. Extreme droughts contribute to longer, more intense, and more destructive wildfire seasons.

The explosion of new money and resources reflects the growing toll that climate change is putting on communities around the country.

Starting with a string of hurricanes and wildfires in 2017, the United States has suffered devastating disasters every year since: Hurricane Michael wiping out towns in the Florida panhandle in 2018, Midwest flooding in 2019, and a record 12 major storms making landfall in 2020. Last year, 22 disasters that struck the country each caused at least $1 billion in damage and economic losses — another record.

The new willingness to spend heavily also reflects the growing toll on the federal budget. Between 2005 and 2019 alone, the federal government spent almost half a trillion dollars on disaster assistance, according to the Government Accountability Office, which considers climate change a threat to the government’s financial health.

Spending more money to protect homes and communities ahead of disasters, rather than after they happen, could reduce those costs, studies suggest. A dollar spent to prepare for disaster saves an average of $6 dollars later, according to federal research.

What Kind of Resilient Architecture Does Your Community Need?

Understanding infrastructure resilience is critical. A town in Kansas doesn’t need to worry about a hurricane, nor does a town on the West Coast need to worry about tornadoes. Obviously, where you are located determines which risks are most pressing for your community. Considering disaster risks is crucial when deciding what to prioritize in your resilient architecture strategy. 

Here are the top infrastructure considerations to apply based on which natural disasters pose the greatest risk for your community: 

Hurricane & Flood Resistant Structures

Flooding is one of the most dangerous and disastrous natural disasters that can occur. Anywhere that rain falls can flood. Taking action to mitigate flood damage is imperative. 

The top resilient infrastructure strategies are as follows:

  • Consider relocating buildings in danger zones: if a building is located in a part of town that poses a serious flooding risk, or repeatedly floods, it may make sense to demolish the building and relocate in a safer part of town. If possible, you may be able to move the physical infrastructure elsewhere.

  • Update Building Codes: For new buildings, consider the risk of flooding when choosing a building site and update building codes so that new construction is built to Fortified Standards

  • Elevate houses and buildings: Elevation is a great - but expensive - preventative measure against flooding. Physical infrastructure can be raised and placed on stilts or elevated foundation above flood risk.

  • Clear storm drains and sewer systems: water backs up when it has no where to go. One of the most straightforward ways to ensure this doesn't occur to is regularly sweep drain and sewer systems for blockages that render drainage systems ineffective.

  • Utilize permeable Pavement: When an area gets paved over for roads, parking lots, sidewalks or new buildings, water that once would have easily been absorbed stays above ground and presents a flood risk. Permeable pavement allows water to flow through it and get absorbed by the soil beneath it, greatly reducing flood risk.

  • Build floodwalls in high-risk areas: if a critical building or neighborhood is surrounded by water that poses a flood risk, a permanent concrete or earthen barrier can be placed outside to prevent water from getting in.  

  • Install Hurricane Straps: Cheap, and highly effective, hurricane straps will greatly increase the chances that a structure's roof will remain attached to the building in a high-wind event. This increases the safety of occupants and makes rebuilding much more affordable in the event of disaster. 

  • Prepare & Train Constituents: Provide free resources to your constituents from leading disaster recovery nonprofit, SBP to help them understand and mitigate their risk prior to disaster, and recovery efficiently should after.

    Consider these tips for Government Flooding Mitigation & Disaster Planning.

Green Infrastructure

Runoff from stormwater continues to be a major cause of water pollution in urban areas. It carries trash, bacteria, heavy metals, and other pollutants through storm sewers into local waterways. Heavy rainstorms can cause flooding that damages property and infrastructure.

Historically, communities have used gray infrastructure—systems of gutters, pipes, and tunnels—to move stormwater away from where we live to treatment plants or straight to local water bodies.  The gray infrastructure in many areas is aging, and its existing capacity to manage large volumes of stormwater is decreasing in areas across the country. To meet this challenge, many communities are installing green infrastructure systems to bolster their capacity to manage stormwater. By doing so, communities are becoming more resilient and achieving environmental, social and economic benefits.

Essentially, green infrastructure filters and absorbs stormwater where it falls, and can include:

  • Community Scale: plant or soil systems, permeable pavement or other permeable surfaces or substrates, stormwater harvest and reuse, or landscaping to store, infiltrate, or evaporate stormwater and reduce flows to sewer systems or to surface waters. Even rain barrels against a house store water that could otherwise contribute to a flood.

  • Urban Scale: row of trees along a major city street, or greening an alleyway. Neighborhood scale green infrastructure could include acres of open park space outside a city center, planting rain gardens or constructing a wetland near a residential housing complex. 

Green infrastructure elements can be woven into a community at several scales. Examples at the urban scale could include a rain barrel up against a house, a row of trees along a major city street, or greening an alleyway. Neighborhood scale green infrastructure could include acres of open public space outside a city center, planting rain gardens or constructing a wetland near a residential housing complex. At the landscape or watershed scale, examples could include protecting large open natural spaces, riparian areas, wetlands or greening steep hillsides. When green infrastructure systems are installed throughout a community, city or across a regional watershed, they can provide cleaner air and water as well as significant value for the community with flood protection, diverse habitat, and beautiful green spaces.

Consider these Modern Parks & Recreation Department Tips for more options. 

Tornado Resistant Structures

Tornados are extremely dangerous and cause billions of dollars in property loss each year.

Resiliency measures agains tornadoes include: 

  • Building to IBHS Fortified standards to limit severe and catastrophic damage to buildings. 

  • Retrofit structures with roof straps to keep roofs detaching from structures.

  • Utilize wind-resistant and projectile resistant materials in new construction. 

  • Prepare & Train Constituents: Provide free resources to your constituents from leading disaster recovery nonprofit, SBP to help them understand and mitigate their risk prior to disaster, and recovery efficiently should after. 

    Follow along for more helpful Government Tornado Mitigation & Disaster Planning Tips


Landslide Resistant Structures

Landslides can easily destroy a building in a poor location or without the proper protection. 

Preventative government measures against landslides include:

  • Adding retaining walls: these walls made of concrete, metal, or wood can hold back soil to prevent landslides.

  • Using groundwater drainage systems: unstable slopes that oftentimes turn into landslides as a result of groundwater. Using draining structures like trench or surface drains will prevent the water from reaching the soil that poses a threat. 

  • Slope angle trimming: remove soil from the top of the slope to ensure that no debris will make its way down a hill.

Earthquake Resistant Structures

Without a proper foundation, antiquated infrastructure can collapse entirely as a result of an earthquake. That means your constituents are at risk of losing their lives and their homes. 

Here are ways that disaster resilient structures can protect your community from earthquake damage:

  • Build with flexible foundations: as explained by BigRentz, a, “building is constructed on top of flexible pads that isolate the foundation from the ground. When an earthquake hits, only the base moves while the structure remains steady.”

  • Build with structural steel: structural steel is designed to be bendable, meaning that even if an earthquake forces a building to shake, it won’t cause the material to snap like less durable materials might.  

Wildfire Resistant Structures 

Anywhere with dry brush and wooded areas needs to consider the risks that come with wildfires. Read GovPilot's Local Government Wildfire Mitigation Guide

Here are some intelligent ways to mitigate damage from a wildfire hitting your community:

  • Use brick when building new structures: brick is noncombustible and is one of the most fire resistant building materials.

  • Use class A roofing materials: FEMA recommends labels fire resistant roofing materials as “class A.” These roofing types include fiberglass shingles as well as concrete tiles.

  • Prepare & Train Constituents: Provide free resources to your constituents from leading disaster recovery nonprofit, SBP to help them understand and mitigate their risk prior to disaster, and recovery efficiently should after. 

Don’t Forget About Your Digital Infrastructure

Secure digital government IT infrastructure is as crucial for a community as having resilient physical infrastructure. Information technology infrastructure should be resilient to natural risks as well as manmade cyber threats. 

In the event of a flood or fire, many local governments are unfortunately left without critical data due to the loss of paper records or on-site servers. In order to prevent the loss of critical records and ensure business continuity and delivery of essential services, the best digital infrastructure to withstand a disaster is cloud-based government management software

Cloud-based government management software can also be used in the field by inspectors with GovInspect to confirm the safety, structural health, and code compliance of critical infrastructure such as buildings, bridges, and roads. 

With a government cloud platform, employees can work remotely if necessary, records and data are safe and  accessible at any time from any location, allowing government officials to focus on disaster relief and recovery efforts without the loss of records and data. 

How Can Your Community Update Existing Infrastructure?

Updating infrastructure to be more disaster resilient expensive, which is why many places have failed to update it.  Fortunately, even communities with formerly limited budgets can leverage new federal funding to take action. 

With the American Rescue Plan, State and local governments can spend funds on community improvements. That means your stimulus money can be spent directly on physical and digital infrastructure.

Additionally, the White House also recently announced that it will be adding $1 billion to the FEMA budget for communities, states, and Tribal governments to spend on disaster mitigation. Local governments should utilize this money to improve the resiliency of infrastructure and prepare home and business owners via preparedness training. 

To learn more about how GovPilot can help to improve your digital infrastructure, which in turn can be used for disaster mitigation and response, schedule a consultation.

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Resilient Infrastructure FAQ

1. What Are Disaster Resilient Structures?

The meaning of disaster resilient infrastructure is ,”physical and IT infrastructure designed to protect community buildings, roads, and technology in the case of a natural disaster.” Essentially, your infrastructure needs to be well designed to withstand any storm or flood that can wipe out your community and constituents.

2. What Are Characteristics of a Disaster Resilient Community?

A disaster resilient community is one well-suited to respond to a crisis that might occur like a devastating flood or tornado. That means the local buildings are built with solid foundation materials, flood zones have storm drains and proper sewage systems, and that critical IT infrastructure is secured through the cloud.

3. What Are Safety Infrastructure Solutions?

The right infrastructure solutions to keep your community safe are dependent upon which natural disasters pose the largest threat. Communities in the South East, for example, need to have buildings well equipped to withstand hurricanes, whereas communities in the Midwest probably should be more concerned about tornados.  

For your government IT infrastructure, the most safety oriented solution is cloud-based software. Physical servers can be destroyed from a flood or tornado, meaning your government data could be lost forever if not properly backed up. Check out GovPilot’s Cloud vs Servers guide to learn more.

4. How to Plan for Building Infrastructure?

Take the time to consider which natural disasters pose the biggest risk to your community. Consider flood zones when building new construction, and keep the materials you’re using in mind so that they can withstand any storm that Mother Nature might throw your way!

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Tags: Government Efficiency, Digital Transformation, Blog, Emergency Management, American Rescue Plan