California Engineers Urge Stronger Preparation for Disasters

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The Structural Engineers Association of California (SEAOC) reflects on the recent hurricanes Irma and Harvey, as well as the Southern Mexico earthquake, and suggests steps for stronger preparation for disasters in the future.

Recent days are a reminder that our environment is dynamic, powerful, and at times threatening; and that community preparation is critical. Harvey inundated Houston with record-setting rainfall, Irma lashed the Caribbean with Category 5 winds and continued it’s path of destruction through Florida and the Southeastern United States, Jose looms as a hurricane in the Atlantic, and late Thursday night, Southern Mexico was rocked by its most powerful earthquake in a century. The Structural Engineering Association of California extends its profound sympathy to those who have lost loved ones and property in the Southeast United States, the Caribbean and in Mexico, and honors and supports those who brave danger to help others whether they act as professional rescue personnel or private citizens extending a helping hand.

The current string of extraordinary disasters demonstrates that disasters rarely happen in isolation. Storms such as Harvey and Irma can result in incredible wind damage in conjunction with flooding from storm surges or swelling of river and lakes due to upstream rainfall. Earthquakes may unleash floods, landslides, fires and toxic spills, and are sometimes followed by nearly equally powerful aftershocks. Unfortunately, the effects of such disasters can last well beyond the physical devastation, resulting in prolonged impact to communities over days, months and even years afterward as the community or region rebuilds.

Across the state, nation, and international boarders, structural engineers play a key role in responding to events such as those in recent news. Structural engineers examine damaged structures and infrastructure systems to determine their level of safety during search and rescue operations, and formally classify them for occupancy in working to return communities to normal as quickly as possible. Structural engineers also play a critical role in improving the response of the built environment to these types of disasters, through research; innovation; in developing, enforcing, and improving building codes worldwide; and ensuring proper implementation of construction practices; to minimize loss of life and property. We study and learn from every disaster and work to continuously improve society’s resilience to harmful events.

A key outcome of this learning is that everyone is responsible in helping prevent these disasters from becoming catastrophes. Everyone should know what to do when disaster strikes, and in the moments, minutes and hours that follow, by being personally prepared. Individuals should coordinate their own plans with their families and friends, neighbors, workplaces and institutions. In severe disasters, do not rely on rescue personnel being immediately available. Historic and recent events show that even the best prepared response agencies in the country do not have all the resources necessary to meet the scope of nature’s most powerful events. Instead, be prepared to help yourself and to help others.

Preparation should have three parts; before, during and after. Create a plan, practice it and secure necessary supplies and water; heed warnings and follow directions, carefully considering even voluntary evacuation notices, delay can be costly; and finally establish relationships with resources that can help in the recovery phase. When storms or floods threaten, know your escape route and have a back-up, do not enter flooded intersections. When an earthquake occurs, DROP (get low to the ground or floor), COVER (protect your head and neck) and HOLD ON (move with a piece of furniture and use it to protect yourself), do not run out of a building while the ground is shaking. Many injuries and fatalities occur as a result of hidden currents in a flood and falling debris during earthquakes. Through private practice, our local and national Associations, and State Emergency Service agreements, structural engineers stand ready to support communities in planning, response, and recovery.

About SEAOC: The Structural Engineers Association of California (SEAOC) is an authoritative world leader in the practice of structural and earthquake engineering, a nationally influential participant in structural code and standard development, and a valuable resource to practicing structural engineers. To learn more, visit

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Alison Corley
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