When Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines in 2013, the Raloso family hid in their bathroom while their house collapsed around them. 4,000 of their neighbors died. The Raloso’s invested in rebuilding stronger and when Typhoon Rammasun hit just a year later, the World Bank reported the family “rode out the storm in their disaster-resilient house — along with 17 of their neighbors who took shelter there.”
A World Bank report, Build Back Better, promises massive savings in dollars and lives by retrofitting existing houses to withstand disasters before they happen. The report assessed 149 countries, which covers 95 percent of the world’s population, and predicted more than 30 percent savings by building houses stronger, faster and more equitably.
Natural disasters cost the U.S. over $200 billion in 2017 alone, so 30 percent in potential savings is a promise that cannot be ignored.
Low income housing should be the priority
When disasters hit, families often suffer what the World Bank calls a “double tragedy”— the loss of loved ones and the loss of their most valuable and sometimes only asset— their home. Without this asset, many people cannot access loans to rebuild and do not have any form of shelter or stability. Alarmingly, many affordable housing programs incentivize the segregation of low-income families into vulnerable areas, such as flood plains in Texas, despite the fact that these same communities require costly government aid after disasters strike. Their disproportionate vulnerability and lack of capacity to recover means low-income people are hit the worst during disasters— further exacerbating poverty and dismantling affordable housing reforms within minutes.
What is retrofitting?
Retrofitting or rehabilitating houses looks different depending on the type of building, region and expected disasters. In flood-prone areas, contractors may suggest elevating the house or improving the septic system. After Hurricane Ivan hit the Caribbean island of Grenada, many families used recovery funds to build hurricane-resilient roofing that utilizes stronger braces and a faceted design that doesn’t catch the wind.
In the US, the nonprofit Enterprise Community Partners uses lessons from Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina to encourage proactive retrofitting and to ensure current recovery efforts in Texas and Puerto Rico prioritize resilience— rather than simply building back what was destroyed.
“The return on investment for taxpayers is that these households will need less support after an event. Disasters are very expensive and it is more expensive to repair housing after an event than before. There are fewer contractors, they charge more, there’s limited temporary housing,” explains Laurie Schoeman, Senior Program Director for Resilience Initiatives at Enterprise.
Research is increasingly pointing to energy efficiency as a critical ingredient to retrofitting and rehabilitation. Not only will high performing, energy efficient buildings provide cost savings to residents, they also have the infrastructure to ride out the aftermath of storms when power is down and attention is on urgent needs such as water, medical supplies and food.
Resilience and equity
Despite the benefits, retrofitting is often not an affordable option in slums, housing projects or low-income areas. Around the world, poor people are forced to live in susceptible areas that are undesirable by those who can afford a safer choice. As the World Bank’s blogpost explains, poor people “trade livability for opportunity— by living in flood-prone, landslide-prone or other at-risk areas for access to jobs and services.”
Additionally, poor people throughout the world are more likely to build their own homes, many of which are not to code. The World Bank’s report argues these same homes could withstand hurricanes and earthquakes with just a few improvements. Most governments steer clear of informal, substandard housing, but the World Bank contends that this ignorance is costing governments millions of dollars in aid after disasters.
In the U.S., Enterprise Community Partners focuses on connecting home and building owners to grants and loans for retrofitting and rehabilitation. “The key to working with low income households in terms of resilience and rehab is providing a comprehensive source of funding. Anything short of that and it’s not affordable,” Laurie Schoeman told Inhabitat. Enterprise also produces manuals and toolkits to help homeowners, contractors and others understand the best methods to assess and improve resilient housing.
According to the World Bank, technology is also helping to make such assessments easier and cheaper than ever. Drones and drive-by cameras can identify highly-vulnerable areas to target for intervention. Connecting this technology with community experts who know local materials, practices and cultures is essential. Recovery grants can be combined with existing housing programs to offer affordable loans and subsidies that refocus government resources on resilient infrastructure for the most vulnerable populations.
“We have a lot of funding coming into communities,” Laurie Schoeman told Inhabitat, “but unless it’s going toward resilience we will be back in the same place. Let’s get these communities the information and resources they need to build forward.”