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Knowledge Base

Building Resilient Infrastructure

Why don’t we have a resiliency mindset right now when it comes to building new infrastructure?

Most engineers, builders, and designers already have a resiliency mindset. They construct infrastructure to last 50 years, 100 years, or longer by making it resilient to the extremes that have occurred in the past, extremes like the 1-in-100-year storm or the hottest heat waves in history. As the globe warms, however, we have experienced new record-breaking weather extremes that will likely continue to break records in the future. For example, what used to be a 1-in-100-year flood caused, may turn into a 1-in-25-year flood with warmer temperatures. Similarly, climate change is expected to bring more intense droughts and hotter temperatures, which means that critical infrastructure systems, such as transportation and the electrical grid, will need to be able to perform under more extreme conditions than experienced in the past. To be safe, we need a resiliency mindset that looks forward, not just backward, to account for the extremes resulting from climate change.

How can making our infrastructure more resilient save us money in the long run?

The Multihazard Mitigation Council, a group of public and private sector organizations led by the National Institute of Building Sciences, estimated in 2017 that every $1 spent on mitigation saves an average of $6 in recovery costs.1 We know that mitigation measures such as strengthening building codes and enforcement can reduce the damage from a disaster. After Hurricane Andrew tore through Dade County, Florida in 1992 and caused over $25 billion in damage2, a grand jury investigation found that weak building codes and lax enforcement increased the level of damage caused by the storm.3 Florida soon thereafter enacted new building codes for extreme winds. When the next major storm, Hurricane Charley, swept through Florida in 2004, the state saw 60 percent fewer insurance claims and those claims were 42 percent lower in severity on average, according to one study by the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety.4 Investing in resilience not only reduces the costs of repairing and rebuilding after an extreme event, it also allows communities to get back on their feet faster and with less disruption.

  1. Multihazard Mitigation Council. 2017. “Natural Hazard Mitigation Saves: 2017 Interim Report.” Washington: National Institute of Building Sciences.
  2. Rappaport, Ed. 1993. “Preliminary Report: Hurricane Andrew, 16 - 28 August, 1992.” Miami: National Hurricane Center.
  3. Dade County Circuit Court. 1992. “Final Report of the Dade County Grand Jury.” Miami: Dade County Circuit Court.
  4. IBHS. 2004. “Hurricane Charley: Nature’s Force vs. Structural Strength.” Tampa: Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety.

Why is historical risk not necessarily the best guide for the future?

Relying on information about past disasters assumes that future risks to infrastructure will match up with historical risks. That assumption could leave our infrastructure investments vulnerable to damage or failure as they confront new climatic extremes. Since the 1880s, the climate has warmed by approximately one degree Celsius (1.8°F) and average sea levels have risen by a global average of roughly eight inches.1 Changes in the earth’s climate are contributing to a higher risk of disasters—more intense storms, more extreme heat and precipitation, deeper droughts, more severe wildfires—than in the past. These changes are expected to continue in the coming decades. If we remain on our current path of emissions, global average temperatures could increase by another five degrees Celsius (9°F)2 and sea levels could gain an additional eight feet3 by 2100. Meanwhile, rising populations in disaster-prone areas, for instance along coastlines and near forestlands, lead to more homes, businesses, and—importantly—infrastructure investments exposed to disasters in those areas. Carefully considering the future conditions that infrastructure projects will face, rather than what has guided decision-making in the past, is crucial to ensuring the investments we make today won’t disappear tomorrow.

  1. Dahlman, LuAnn. 2017. “Climate Change: Global Temperature,” 
  2. Melillo, Jerry M., Terese (T.C.) Richmond, and Gary W. Yohe, Eds., 2014: Climate Change Impacts in the United States: The Third National Climate Assessment. U.S. Global Change Research Program. 
  3. Sweet, William V., Robert E. Kopp, Christopher P. Weaver, Jayantha Obeysekera, Radley M. Horton, E. Robert Thieler, and Chris Zervas. 2017. “Global and Regional Sea Level Rise Scenarios for the United States. "NOAA Technical Report NOS CO-OPS 083. Silver Spring: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration."

How can we encourage people to embrace resiliency?

There are at least three important ways to foster resilient infrastructure design and construction. First and foremost, it’s important to inform infrastructure owners and operators about their risks, including the future risks from climate change. Second, by designing infrastructure flexibly to adapt to future changes, we can avoid costly mistakes and adjust as conditions change. That means, for example, building sea walls that can be adjusted at little cost if estimates of future sea level rise change. Third, designing projects to have important social and environmental co-benefits, for example building parks to increase green space for rain runoff and to reduce the “heat island effect,” can help resiliency become a more widespread consideration in infrastructure design and construction.