Disasters — whether in the form of hurricanes, wildfires or a global pandemic — can cause significant disruption and change lives in ways large and small. We’ve all witnessed recent examples.

Studying past disasters reveals those who emerge strongest on the other side have often incorporated sustainability on two levels. First, they sustain the organizations that fund, operate and maintain infrastructure. This can be accomplished by applying organizational resilience principles to function as a higher reliability organization (HRO).

While there is plenty of literature on HRO, it boils down to an organization’s ability to anticipate and adapt to incremental and sudden changes to continue operating over a long period of time. The leaders of these organizations need to think through ways in which a disaster might impact them and take proactive steps to plan for and prevent possible disruption.

Setting up preventive controls is the first step to becoming an HRO. For a hospital, that could mean a backup emergency power supply, among other things. A coastal city in a hurricane-prone region might develop and practice emergency evacuation and communication plans. Going a step further, these communication plans need to promote effective use of language and deference to expertise by empowering those on the front line to make decisions.

Another aspect of organizational resilience is finding new solutions that allow one to grow and prosper. Instead of just bouncing back, HROs can bounce forward, exploring or developing new markets and technologies. In the current pandemic, for example, medical professionals and school districts have quickly pivoted to use technologies that support telemedicine and remote learning. Wholesale food companies have adjusted their supply chains to sell directly to consumers.

The second level at which sustainability can be incorporated to increase resiliency to disaster is through sustainable infrastructure practices, starting in the conceptual planning phase. The ability to survive earthquakes, storms and other disruptions, as it turns out, is a key component of sustainability.

Perhaps the best illustration of this is a simple one. Consider a city that encourages its residents to use sustainable practices, like biking to work and participating in community gardens. Both practices not only make the community greener but also more resilient to disasters. The cargo bikes found in sustainable communities can be enlisted in disaster responses, should fuel supplies to a city be cut off. Similarly, community gardens can provide a source of food.

A building that is designed to withstand a hurricane or earthquake, likewise, is more sustainable over its life cycle than one that is not. When you consider how costly quake or storm damage can be to a structure and the carbon emissions associated with its reconstruction, a sustainable structure is better for the environment as well. In fact, the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program is piloting an Assessment and Planning for Resilience credit program that aims to make disaster resilience a component of LEED accreditation. An Envision Sustainability Professional (ENV SP) certification — which is similar to LEED but geared toward horizontal infrastructure projects as opposed to vertical (building) construction — includes a credit to projects that prepare for long-term adaptability to the consequences of climate change.

The relationship between sustainable design and disaster resilience extends to infrastructure as well. Sewage spills caused by a major weather event can leave environmental damage in their wake. However, a municipal wastewater utility that already utilizes best management practices to limit stormwater runoff can quickly react and apply those practices to prevent sewer overflows and spills. Similarly, broken gas lines and generator use following an earthquake come at an environmental cost that might be saved if gas and power lines were more sustainable.

Where to Begin

Businesses, government agencies and cities alike now have a fresh reason to update their disaster preparedness plans. Now is the time to strategize ways to rebuild a more resilient and sustainable enterprise by taking stock of what is and isn’t working in the community and developing innovative solutions. Going through the exercise now might help prepare for when the next disaster strikes.

The goal isn't just to make a particular building or piece of infrastructure more resilient. It is to create resilient communities that have prepared for disaster, allowing them to adapt quickly to disruption and remain operational. Plans for the future should aspire to make our world more sustainable, whether faced with a major disaster or not.


Communities that use sustainable infrastructure practices can adapt quickly to disruption and remain operational. Learn more about strategies to make existing infrastructure more resilient. 

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Tara Krahe, an environmental engineer at Burns & McDonnell, has experience in a wide range of environmental management and civil engineering projects. Her work primarily focuses on operation and maintenance of remediation systems at sites with petroleum hydrocarbons and chlorinated solvents, preparation of engineering plans and reports, and regulatory compliance (air, hazardous materials, stormwater and California Environmental Quality Act).