August 15, 2016
Post-Disaster Engineering & Construction
As the nation faces the challenges of rebuilding in Puerto Rico after the devastation of
Hurricane Maria, it is important to understand that post-disaster efforts cannot be business
The post-disaster environment changes engineering and construction requirements as well as
the framework within which the rebuilding an reconstruction efforts will be undertaken. These
changes drive the post-disaster program and project managers to address different
considerations from those encountered on a more traditional, global scale program while
simultaneously dealing with the added constraints imposed by an evolving logistical situation.
Simplified Engineering & Construction Project Model
In order to understand how the engineering and construction project model changes post-
disaster, it is first necessary to construct a simplified model for the non-disaster scenario. Such
a simplified model is reflected in the following figure and includes a set of project inputs that
are transformed at a project site, within a well-defined framework, to deliver the desired
project outputs. Framework elements in a non-disaster project model include:
Project environment and setting
Social and stakeholder framework
Economic and political framework
In the non-disaster scenario, project inputs simplistically include:
Outputs from the engineering and construction process include not only the completed project
but also a significant amount of construction waste (25 percent of construction inputs).
Turning now to each of the framework elements in which construction typically occurs, we can
define the prime components comprising each element in a “simplified” non- disaster
The business components include the contract, the risk factors, the facility owner, and
the various labor organizations and associated labor agreements that may exist.
Project environment and setting components include project site factors, geography,
climate, existing regional infrastructure, available records and documentation, and
applicable codes and standards.
The social and stakeholder components include existing organized stakeholders, local
and regional demographics, a range of cultural or religious factors to be considered, and
hopefully well-established ownership rights.
Finally, the economic and political components include a well-established rule of law,
clear regulations, well-defined financial institutions, other institutions taken for granted
in everyday commercial activities, and a well-defined and efficiently structured
approach to project funding.
Site-based factors further constrain how project inputs are transformed into the desired project
outputs within this framework. The transformation process also is enabled through a set of
required site services, the esprit de corps built among the project team, and the knowledge and
experience the contractor and his/her management and technical experts bring to bear.
How the Engineering and Construction Project Model Changes Post-Disaster
Disasters change each element of this model. Also, as we will see later on, activities normally
undertaken are modified by post-disaster logistics constraints as well as modify post-disaster
logistics themselves. Let’s look now at each element of the simplified model described above
and how it is modified post-disaster, starting with project inputs themselves.
Each of the basic inputs from our simplified model (labor, materials, and equipment) is
modified post-disaster, and several new input considerations become significant. These
modified and new input factors include:
New management skills
Skilled labor requirements changed/expanded
Large unskilled labor pool mobilization
Labor sourcing (global or select nationals)
Material requirements and sequencing changed
Quantities-disrupted supply chains
Maintenance during construction
Knowledge of Post-Disaster Construction Subcontractor Finance
Traditional housing, provision, and utility services are disrupted or inadequate.
Logistic facilities are disrupted or inadequate.
Modified Safety Practices for Post-Disaster Environment
Specialized craft training
Changed work sequences
Stronger Management Systems Role
Labor documentation and payroll
Augmented workface planning and management
Similarly, the various framework elements are subject to modified or added components, which
act to shape post-disaster project management in ways not encountered in non-disaster
scenarios. Let’s look at each of the framework elements and how the various components are
Disaster Changes the Business Framework
Disaster changes the business framework. It introduces new factors into basic construction
contract considerations, significantly altering risk frameworks that the program or project team
may experience. Disaster also creates new, de facto owner groups that are different than those
the engineering and construction team and broader community may be used to engaging. It
also creates new challenges with various labor organizations.
Specific modifications to the simplified model may include the following:
Scope includes more unknowns and potentially evolving requirements.
Schedule now is based on potential continuing risk events, degraded labor productivity,
uncertain supply chains, and evolving approval frameworks.
Budgets now are based on uncertain labor, equipment, and material costs, accounting
for competition for constrained resources.
Quality standards must consider risks and intended usage and duration.
Significantly changed risk profile must be reflected in terms and conditions.
External funding agencies may assume de facto owner’s role.
Labor Organizations and Agreements
Existing agreements may create barriers to recovery.
Potential for labor strife increases as external workforce is mobilized.
Disaster Changes Project and Environmental Setting Framework
Disasters, in particular broader scale disasters, fundamentally alter the project and
environmental setting. Site access will be constrained in new and potentially evolving ways,
basic site and regional geography may be fundamentally modified, and the regional
infrastructure, at whatever level that projects rely on to meet many of their basic needs, may
now be nonexistent. Basic assumptions under the simplified pre- disaster model are no longer
Changes to the various components of this framework element include:
Uncertain ownership or other property rights
Modified topography (floods, landslides, or mudslides; earthquake displacement; lava
fields; aftermath of military action)
Terrain limits the rate of response or reconstruction.
Accessibility constrains available options.
Adverse climactic conditions impact response activities (continuing hurricane season,
seasonal extremes of temperature or precipitation).
Event of scale necessitates construction in nontraditional time periods (monsoon, depth
of winter, peak of summer).
Widespread destruction of regional infrastructures important to response and
reconstruction (roads and rails washed away, bridges severely damaged or destroyed,
airports rendered unusable, destroyed power generation and transmission capability,
destroyed or degraded potable water treatment and distribution capability, degraded
wastewater capability, constrained telecom services from facility damage)
Regional infrastructure inadequate for level and nature of response and rebuilding
Social Infrastructures Disrupted or Destroyed
Housing, medical, police, fire, sanitation
Banking and other financial institutions
Records and Documentation
As-builts no longer meaningful
Property rights not well documented or inconsistent with social realities (squatter
Codes and Standards
Evolving as a result of event of scale
Variable – affected by donor/funder requirements
Disaster Changes Social and Stakeholder Framework
Social and stakeholder frameworks undergo some of the most significant changes post-
disaster, often in ways that are not readily visible. These changes impact each of the
components that comprise this framework element. Traditional problem resolution
mechanisms may break down, and new sources of concern or conflict may emerge. Displaced
populations, transient relief and reconstruction populations, and a re-emergence or
strengthening of cultural or tribal issues compound the difficulty in undertaking the engineering
and construction activities needed to respond and reconstruct post- disaster. Often the
debilitating and corrosive impacts of corruption are more sharply felt.
Changes to specific framework components include:
Traditional stakeholder groups are dysfunctional.
Stakeholder objectives are evolving.
New stakeholder groups are emerging.
National or international stakeholders gain roles to enable or Intervene.
Loss and displacement of populations
Impact of relief, response, and reconstruction populations
Constraints on construction labor
Transitional roles often played by cultural or religious groups
Cultural and religious sensitivities are often elevated.
Tribal issues and prerogatives may resurface.
Lack of documentation and records
Formal vs. informal rights
Confiscation in the absence of the rule of law
Disaster Changes Economic and Political Framework
The destructive impact of a disaster on economic activity that existed pre-disaster is easy to
understand. Harder to come to grips with is the trajectory of economic activity post-disaster.
This trajectory is often shaped by political functionality and the extension of politics into every
aspect of life and every decision essential to post-disaster relief and recovery. Examples of
changes in the various components of this final framework element include:
Rule of Law
Confiscation and security risks are elevated due to lack of rule of law.
Emergency decrees are inconsistently interpreted and applied.
Local laws of convenience
Regulations are not relevant to situation on ground or act to impede progress.
Traditional regulations are extended to situations for which they were not designed.
Absent or disrupted
Emergence of a cash economy
Difficulty paying suppliers and labor
“Color of money” issues are associated with multiple funding sources and tied
Documentation requirements evolve.
Lack of on-the-ground payment capability by donors
Lack of timeliness of payments
Politics in traditionally non-political activities
Every activity is potentially someone’s political platform.
Long-range planning efforts are begun anew, affecting critical decisions.
Economic development is a core consideration.
Capacity building may be an imperative.
Sustainability and Resilience
Life-cycle focus may emerge.
Post-Disaster Project and Construction Activity
Post-disaster project and construction activity must now occur at a site where traditional inputs
and project frameworks have been modified and special challenges are present. These special
Debris removal and potential reuse to mitigate ever present logistical challenges.
Changed psychology with respect to decision-making and risk-taking and to a labor force
that itself may be displaced or suffering the loss of close relatives.
Changed liability concerns, since one of the first things to grow post-disaster is
uncertainty, a root cause of much liability.
We have already touched upon the corrosive effects of corruption, which may be controlled or
compounded by governmental leadership and enablement. These are real issues as are those
related to human and construction safety. The construction environment is inherently
dangerous, and post-disaster uncertainties only exacerbate these concerns.
Finally, post-disaster construction activities face modified output requirements from more
traditional, non-disaster construction.
Post-Disaster Construction Outputs
Traditional construction activities normally focus on creating new facilities, usually permanent
in nature. Post-disaster projects may take on a wider range of timeframes, including temporary,
transitional, and permanent dimensions.
Pressure to use disaster debris in construction may modify certain design and construction
choices. Considerations related to not adding to this material problem are only heightened in
post-disaster environments. Social dimensions of the “triple bottom line” of sustainability take
on increased importance as part of the overall disaster recovery process.
Specific changes to post-disaster outputs include:
Linkage to debris considerations (disposal and reuse in construction)
New industry creation
Lessons learned and best practices
Post-disaster engineering and construction program and project management activities are
significantly modified compared to non-disaster activities. Changes to the fundamental project
model employed in the management of these types of programs and projects requires a
fundamental rethinking of skill sets, management processes, risks, and constraints.
In addition, these changes collectively alter the logistical characteristics of such programs
significantly while at the same time modifying the broader logistical space within which the
disaster has occurred. Even the most basic project activities, when occurring in the post-
disaster environment, could significantly affect project and regional logistics. Even the best-
intentioned relief and recovery activities have the ability to impact response and recovery in
today’s highly-engineered built environment.
The challenges of the post-disaster environment can be met through concerted action by the
engineering, construction, government, and non-governmental sectors.
About the Author
Bob Prieto was inducted into the National Academy of Construction in 2011. He is Chairman and CEO of
Strategic Program Management, LLC.