Published: Oct. 13, 2017 By

An aerial view of homes flooded by Hurricane Harvey.

In recent weeks, hurricanes destroyed an estimated 185,000 homes in Texas, 25% of the housing in the Florida Keys and at least 60,000 homes in Puerto Rico. In northern California, this week’s wildfires continue to tear through residential neighborhoods. 

Erin Arneson, who’s wrapping up her PhD in civil engineering this year, is studying whether the construction industry is ready for all the residential rebuilding that disasters like this require. She is analyzing data to determine our construction capacity – how many construction workers do we have, and how much stuff they have to build with – for the increased demand following natural disasters like hurricanes, wildfires and floods.

“I want to quantitatively measure the capacity of the construction industry,” she said. “The United States census and the Bureau of Labor Statistics collect great data, but it is almost impossible to decipher, so no one uses it.”

She focuses on residential housing because, with regards to disasters, those structures are often the most vulnerable, but the least studied. Her research compares different regions for their disaster preparedness. This includes both rural and urban developments, and takes into account the ratios of construction industry supply and demand. If a region is low on construction materials or labor before a disaster, those resources will be depleted at an unsustainable rate after one occurs.

For instance, if the supply of usable lumber is already drained and a hurricane strikes, now everyone needs lumber to rebuild and the supply is unable to meet the demand. The same is true for labor. Arneson said there are presently carpenter shortages in the Midwest and brick mason shortages in the West, leaving a void where people need work completed.

“Disasters exacerbate existing conditions,” Arneson said. “Which is why it is so important to know your existing resources and capabilities, as it will be difficult to implement them in a post-disaster setting.”

Arneson’s end goal is an interactive GIS (geographic information system) map that she can bring to members of the construction industry to encourage them to work together after disasters. She repeatedly emphasized that the construction industry is very fragmented.

“They’re working on individual projects with a contract,” she said, “and there’s no incentive to work with other companies if you’re not on a project together.”

The GIS map will include all U.S. regions and incorporate the natural disaster risks facing each area. An example might be the amount of lumber available in Texas after Hurricane Harvey, the lack of building framers, and where the state could access those resources.

One confounding aspect, however, is how to show this data – which visualization will most effectively communicate her analysis?

“It can be perfect data,” Arneson said, “but if they can’t understand it, it’s worthless.”

Once she decides on an optimal visualization technique, she hopes the map will increase the efficiency of the construction industry – making every dollar spent on labor and material go further as disasters occur more frequently.

“Billion-dollar disaster events have been steadily increasing,” Arneson said. “Eventually, we can expect such an event each year. It’s going to be the new norm.”

This new norm means an increased competition for resources in the post-disaster setting. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, New York state was quick to hand out disaster grants, allowing for its citizens to rebuild and recuperate from the disaster. New Jersey, however, was much slower in their allotment of funds. By the time homeowners had access to money, all of the construction materials and workers were being utilized by New York.

The importance of making money available for homeowners quickly, and getting the resources to build with to the area with similar haste, cannot be overstated, Arneson said.

“If you don’t rebuild permanent housing within one to two years, citizens won’t come back,” she said. “That area will go into permanent decline.”

There have been attempts to open communication between local governments and construction agencies, most notably from FEMA in its National Disaster Housing Strategy. The goal of this strategy was to rebuild permanent residential housing faster to ensure long-term recovery. The problem, however, is there are few guidelines for how to make this goal a reality.

“We’re even more vulnerable than we may think,” Arneson said. “The national construction industry is doing very well, but it isn’t set up to deal with unexpected demand surge.”

And it is no longer a question of if that surge will come, but when.