Post-Disaster Learning: Bangladesh Could Provide U.S. with Lesson in Graceful Failure

Janey Camp, Research Associate Professor

Vanderbilt Engineering Center for Transportation and Operational Resiliency (VECTOR), Vanderbilt University

Flood in USI’d like to chat about something “uncomfortable” and “unpopular.” Let’s talk about arrogance and pride in terms of rebuilding post-disaster. In the aftermath of Harvey and Irma, it is prime time for this discussion. A few years ago, I visited Bangladesh. It was eye opening and also humbling in so many ways.  As a civil engineer, I’m a strong proponent of infrastructure – well-built infrastructure to serve and protect our people. However, when visiting Bangladesh and the coastal regions severely hit by Cyclones Sidr and Aila and tales of destruction in a coastal delta region not too different from our own Mississippi Delta, I couldn’t help but think “are we doing it wrong?” Our Mississippi Delta was severely hit by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and in its aftermath, we responded as a grand nation – we rebuilt, we replaced, and we recovered (at least to some degree), but did we learn any lessons? Levees failed, pumps failed, evacuation strategies failed, but what did we do in the aftermath? We rebuilt – supposedly bigger, stronger, and better. But should we have done that? It’s an unpleasant and political nightmare to say “we shouldn’t rebuild, people shouldn’t live here, etc.”  However, in my visit to Bangladesh, the citizens of the delta region acknowledge that nature “rules.” During the monsoon season, they move to high ground. Bangladeshis, for the most part, live within the bounds of nature.  Lives lost there during extreme cyclones were not necessarily due to failed infrastructure – for theirs is minimal – but instead due to lack of information and warning. In the United States, instead of cutting our losses and “moving to high ground” after realizing that many are living in an “at risk” situation only protected by infrastructure as is much of New Orleans, we build bigger and higher. Are we arrogant to think that we can “out build” and out last the extremes that nature is throwing at us? Should we not begin strategizing to relocate and rebuild in safer, less “at risk” areas for the benefit and safety of our citizens. 

Systems fail and climate is uncertain. Retreat is an option, but it’s not on the table. There are social and political implications that no one wants to deal with. Should we continue paying flood insurance claims to properties that have flooded four, five, or even more times? As engineers, we build in factors of safety in our designs, but are they safe enough for the extremes that happen once in a blue moon? We need to take responsibility and become “humble” to understand that we cannot control nature, but instead we can control our actions and work toward accepting those things that we can control such as where people live and build and those that we cannot. I want us to start thinking about retreat as an option. Under future climate scenarios, our current coasts will disappear. Where will people go?  What infrastructure needs to be in place to accommodate those moves inland? And who will fund the “buy out” of properties that are soon to be inundated by ocean waters permanently?

Dr. Janey Camp is a Research Associate Professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering at Vanderbilt University and a licensed engineer.  Her research focuses on the impacts of climate change and extreme weather on infrastructure systems and the communities they serve.  Janey is a member of the ASCE Committee for America’s Infrastructure and Past President of the Tennessee Society of Professional Engineers. For more information, Janey can be reached via email or phone, 615-322-6013.