What Did Sandy Teach Us?

In the weeks following Hurricane Sandy, I had an opportunity to visit some of the hardest hit communities in the region. At the time, many of New Jersey’s barrier islands were still completely closed off to civilian traffic and all accessible bridges were blocked by military guards. Our local territory manager has great relationships with building departments, so we were able to walk portions of Long Beach Island, NJ with an inspector. The storm surge washed out several sections of the protective sand dunes on the south end of the island in the neighborhood of Holgate and this is where we spent much of the day.

Holgate, NJ
Holgate, NJ
Scoured foundation temporarily shored. Holgate, NJ.
Scoured foundation temporarily shored. Holgate, NJ.

For a structural engineer, there was a lot to observe and many things I could write about here (maybe a future post), but what strikes me the most when looking back is the long- term impact this event will have on the region. The cost of Sandy goes beyond the loss of life and property (72 lives, $50 billion and growing). It would be difficult to estimate a dollar amount that accounts for the displacement of people and disruption to their lives, the hit to local economies that depend heavily on tourism, and the effect on the national economy and taxpayers; but I imagine it would be a staggering sum. So what, if anything, can structural engineers do about it?

Owners assess the damage. Holgate, NJ.
Owners assess the damage. Holgate, NJ.
House that split in half. Bay Head, NJ.
House that split in half. Bay Head, NJ.

One possibility may be to increase the education we provide to clients and the industry. It seems all too often that structural engineers are competing against each other to provide a design that has the lowest possible construction cost to comply with the building code. But building codes are bare minimums and an owner may not understand how a small increase in construction cost may greatly increase the resiliency of their building. Structural engineers are the one member of the design/development team with the expertise to bring this information into the discussion. A recent blog post on code-plus programs contains some great resources to help kick start the conversation.

Another opportunity we have is to work with our state chapters of NCSEA, CASE or ASCE to modify the model codes when they are adopted at the local level to address regional risks. What makes sense for one region may not make sense for the rest of the country. Areas subject to hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, or earthquakes would benefit from higher building code standards for those risks.

Nothing makes me more proud of my profession than when I hear how a well-designed structure survived an extreme event and fulfilled its most vital role, protecting its occupants from the worst of Mother Nature. Shouldn’t that be the goal of every building design?

House pushed off of its foundation. Holgate, NJ.
House pushed off of its foundation. Holgate, NJ.

What are your thoughts? Please share by posting a comment.

– Shane

Paul McEntee

Author: Paul McEntee

A couple of years back we hosted a “Take your daughter or son to work day,” which was a great opportunity for our children to find out what their parents did. We had different activities for the kids to learn about careers and the importance of education in opening up career opportunities. People often ask me what I do for Simpson Strong-Tie and I sometimes laugh about how my son Ryan responded to a questionnaire he filled out that day:

Q.   What is your mom/dad's job?
A.   Goes and gets coffee and sits at his desk

Q.   What does your mom/dad actually do at work?
A.   Walks in the test lab and checks things

When I am not checking things in the lab or sitting at my desk drinking coffee, I manage Engineering Research and Development for Simpson Strong-Tie, focusing on new product development for connectors and lateral systems.

I graduated from the University of California at Berkeley and I am a licensed Civil and Structural Engineer in California. Prior to joining Simpson Strong-Tie, I worked for 10 years as a consulting structural engineer designing commercial, industrial, multi-family, mixed-use and retail projects. I was fortunate in those years to work at a great engineering firm that did a lot of everything. This allowed me to gain experience designing with wood, structural steel, concrete, concrete block and cold-formed steel as well as working on many seismic retrofits of historic unreinforced masonry buildings.