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When Disaster Strikes: A Stepwise Process for Expediting a More Resilient Recovery

Engaging an independent engineering expert for advice and counsel during the inspection phase is of critical importance to expediting a full recovery of business operations.

By Dennis McCann, P.h.D., P.E.

As climate change drives more frequent and intense weather events, resilience has become increasingly important for everyone involved in the built environment. Defined as the ability to prepare and plan for, absorb, recover from, and more successfully adapt to adverse events, resilience is a priority across the board for facilities, businesses, and industries.

Engineers can help building owners reduce their property loss risks by identifying vulnerabilities, improving structural robustness, and maintaining building and structures before an unexpected disaster occurs. With hazard-mitigation measures implemented upfront, the building will be better prepared to maintain continuous function or be quickly repaired for a return to service after an extreme event.

Even if owners are well prepared and maintain their facility diligently, catastrophe can still occur. Whether the loss is due to a natural or manmade disaster, there is a stepwise process that should be followed to minimize loss, rebound quickly, and experience a more resilient recovery.

Step 1: Stakeholder Notifications

Timely communication is of paramount importance in any emergency. This starts with immediately getting building occupants out of harm’s way and notifying local firefighters, police, and other appropriate emergency personnel of the incident location, conditions, and status of occupants.

While the first objective is to ensure everyone is safe and secure, the second is to safeguard the business. Owners should first contact their insurance company to notify them of the incident and begin the claims process. They should next review the site preparedness plan and contact the appropriate experts for advice and counsel on safeguarding business interests. Key contacts could include engineering consultants, legal representation, contractors specializing in disaster recovery, and insurance claim consultants, especially if the incident results in a large loss.

Step 2: Safety and Loss Mitigation

During an event, first responders and building officials will secure the site and determine if the structure is safe for reentry. Is the building partially collapsed? Is dangerous debris dangling? Is there a gas or water leak? An engineering consultant can assist the owner in collaborating with local officials to devise a safe pathway into the building—potentially cordoning off unsafe locations—and determine next steps in mitigating safety hazards, such as shoring up the roof and support beams to prevent further collapse, contacting utility service providers to shut off the gas or water, or removing hazardous debris.

After the building is safe to reenter, the owner needs to take stock of the damage and initiate additional temporary repairs to mitigate further property loss. This may involve placing a tarp over a breach in the roof to prevent further water intrusion. Boarding up holes in walls and pumping out water are additional protective actions that need to happen quickly.

Finally, as soon as it is safe to do so, the owner should document everything with photos and videos, as this evidence will be critical in expediting the structural forensic analysis and repair phase of the recovery. A separate recordkeeping account also should be established.

Step 3: Property Cleanup

The next task in the recovery process is to perform a thorough site cleanup of everything that is wet and broken. Delays in decontaminating soot-covered surfaces, removing sludge, and tackling structural drying and dehumidification requirements can cause additional problems, compounding the loss.

Smoke, soot, acid, and water contamination can severely impact the functionality, reliability, and service life of not only structural systems but also mechanical and electronic systems. Metal surfaces of processing machinery can be massively damaged by corrosive and abrasive deposits within an extremely brief time. Consider relocating salvageable equipment to another area of the building or rely on a combination of restoration agents and procedures to prevent the equipment from becoming impaired.

Step 4: Inspections and Restoration

To determine how much of the loss is recoverable, an engineer will next need to ascertain what the nature of the failure is, how extensive it is, and if it is repairable. The return of a building to functionality may require the repair of the structural system, the replacement of building components, or the temporary removal of portions of the structural frame to gain access to other building service components that may need to be restored.

Engaging an independent engineering expert for advice and counsel during the inspection phase is of critical importance to expediting a full recovery of business operations. While insurance adjusters are very knowledgeable, they may not grasp every detail on the extent of the property loss. There are always nuances, such as a change in the building code and how a code upgrade will be integrated into the restoration.

Together, the engineering consultant and insurance adjuster will review the documented evidence and conduct their own inspections for reaching a consensus on the extent of damage, causation of failure, and cost of repairs to ensure a full recovery. It is important to note that most insurance policies will replace “like kind and quality” and may not cover or only pay for a portion of a code upgrade. The engineering consultant should advise the owner on what materials or structural components their building had, what the code says, and what modifications are recommended to mitigate future risk. Reconstruction with more resilient materials and structural systems can mean the difference between having a facility up and running shortly after a disaster or waiting months for reconstruction if faced with a future disaster. This could be a small investment upgrade that may have a major impact on the property insurance risk profile and coverage premiums.

How We Can Help

The disaster-response steps outlined here are the immediate action items to implement for expediting a more resilient recovery. Engaging with an engineering consultant early in the process can mitigate loss and reduce the amount of time to return a building and business operations to full functionality.

CTLGroup has the technical expertise, construction-systems knowledge, and commitment to help owners meet their building-resilience goals. From building-envelope vulnerability assessments and risk-mitigation recommendations on the upfront preparedness side to forensic damage assessments and failure root-cause determinations in the aftermath of an event, we are here to help. Learn more about our services, and contact our Property Loss Team.

About the Author:

Dennis McCann, Ph.D., P.E. is President of CTLGroup with responsibilities including operations oversight and strategy for the firm. Dr. McCann’s professional practice is focused on forensic engineering, risk assessment, and performance evaluation of structures and infrastructure. He can be reached at

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