Should We Rebuild Where Natural Disasters Keep Recurring?

By Rose Morrison, managing editor of Renovated

Extreme weather events have become more frequent and severe in recent years due to rising global temperatures and other effects of climate change. This disturbing trend raises a few questions. Should we continue to rebuild where natural disasters keep recurring? What improvements simplify the rebuilding process? What challenges stand in the way?

Disaster-Resilient Architecture

Resilient architecture must be the top priority if towns and cities want to continue rebuilding after natural disasters. The recovery process would be much simpler, cheaper and emotionally manageable if buildings could withstand more extreme weather. These developments can have the most significant impacts.

A home in Gilchrist, Texas, designed to resist flood waters survived Hurricane Ike in 2008.
A home in Gilchrist, Texas, designed to resist flood waters survived Hurricane Ike in 2008.
Credit: FEMA/Joselyne Augustino)

Resilient Materials

Modern construction has faced criticism for being too shoddy and fragile compared to older architecture. One of the main reasons for weak infrastructure is the heavy reliance on cheap, flimsy materials. Switching to natural and sustainable construction materials can make buildings much more resilient to natural disasters. Here are some examples:

  • Floods: Flood-resistant materials like steel, glazed bricks, marine-grade plywood and ceramic tiles prevent water from seeping into the building and causing it to collapse. The building will still suffer some flood damage, but it doesn’t have to be rebuilt from scratch.
  • Fires: Steel and concrete are strong non-combustible materials that should be the foundation for every building. Wood treated with fire-resistant coatings is also becoming commonplace. Eco-friendly materials like rammed earth and stone veneer are more durable than drywall and other cheap artificial materials.
  • Earthquakes: More architects are putting flexible pads of steel, rubber and lead underneath their buildings to absorb seismic waves from earthquakes and minimize the damage. Softer wood varieties like bamboo, pine, fir and spruce are also viable options because of their flexibility.

Additionally, the growth of 3D printing in construction can allow builders to use a new technology called engineered living materials (ELMs) on a broader scale. Metal, plastic, glass and rubber ELMs containing networks of self-healing capsules can do some of the work when rebuilding from disasters.

High construction costs are the main obstacle preventing the widespread adoption of these materials. However, contractors can use rental equipment, prioritize employee training and take small steps to reduce expenses. These initiatives can significantly reduce equipment costs and allow builders to spend more on resilient, high-quality materials.

Symmetry and Aerodynamics

Rebuilding communities with symmetrical, aerodynamic designs can also improve their resilience to future disasters. Buildings need to complement and strengthen the surrounding terrain, not weaken it.

In 2015, the National Building Research Organisation — a Sri Lankan institute and one of the global leaders in disaster-free built environment research — said all buildings should have a maximum 3:1 length-to-width ratio to remain stable during extreme weather. Long and thin structures are at a greater risk of collapse.

The NBRO also recommends these hazard-resilient features of symmetrical buildings:

  • Wide hexagonal or octagonal design
  • Increased depth of foundation
  • Raised floor levels
  • Framed structure with reinforced columns
  • Door and window frames properly anchored
  • Walls stiffened with lintel or sill beams
  • Roofs with four-way slopes, also known as “hip roofs”
  • Minimal ground disturbance to retain slopes
  • Proper connections between gable wall, roof and the rest of the structure

Although these features are primarily for residential buildings, some have also shown great success on a massive commercial scale. For example, the Kansai Airport in Osaka Bay, Japan has an aerodynamic design promoting natural air distribution, making it more energy-efficient and resilient to strong winds from tropical storms. The Shanghai Tower’s famous triangular frame can also withstand high-impact winds while using 25% less steel than buildings of a similar size.

Improving Disaster Forecasts and Response Times

Forecasting and quick response times are also important aspects of rebuilding from disasters. More accurate predictions and better emergency preparedness can reduce the infrastructural damage done by natural disasters and make the rebuilding process easier.

For example, Google’s artificial intelligence flood warning program for Bangladesh notified more than 200 million residents about upcoming floods in 2020. The program even told people where and when floodwater was most likely to travel, allowing communities to reinforce those vulnerable areas and evacuate in a timely manner.

AI will play a crucial role in predicting natural disasters moving forward. Here are some other ways it can benefit natural disaster responses.

Houses destroyed by a tornado
Kokomo – August 24, 2016: Several EF3 tornadoes touched down in a residential neighborhood causing millions of dollars in damage. This is the second time in three years this area has been hit by tornadoes 42
Photo by jetcityimage2

Hurricanes and Tornadoes

Hurricanes and tornadoes are highly unpredictable disasters. Their behavior can change in the blink of an eye, outpacing even the most advanced forecasting models — until now. Pacific Northwest National Laboratory researchers have developed AI software that can predict wind speed, water and air temperatures, and other behavioral factors. These insights help determine which communities will face the brunt of the storms.

The National Center for Atmospheric Research is also testing AI software on tornadoes that uses 40 atmospheric metrics to predict their movements. It can determine whether a tornado will cause more wind or hail damage.


An independent team of geoscientists in the Pacific Northwest has leveraged AI-powered machine learning to predict earthquakes. Their software successfully predicted the time and severity of simulated earthquakes in a laboratory setting. Researchers in Europe also made similar findings with their software.

These AI models are still in early development, but the creators believe they will eventually be able to identify earthquakes several days before they happen. Armed with this technology, communities would have much more time to strengthen their buildings and evacuate before an earthquake strikes.


Students and researchers at Stanford University have developed an AI model that can predict how much fuel a forest fire has. The software analyzes wooded areas, estimates their moisture levels through microwaves and determines the area’s risk level. This model has had a 70% success rate across 12 states in the U.S.

Although fires are difficult to predict, spotting those high-risk areas and neutralizing the fuel sources can significantly reduce the damage caused by forest fires.

To Rebuild Where Natural Disasters Have Occurred is Still a Viable Option

Thanks to these recent developments in construction and weather forecasting, rebuilding is certainly still a viable option for communities that experience natural disasters. They have better building materials, design plans and forecasting technologies than ever before. Humans can’t prevent natural disasters from happening, but they can take many practical steps to minimize the damage.

Rose Morrison

About the Author

Rose is the managing editor of Renovated and has been writing in the construction industry for over five years. She’s most passionate about sustainable building and incorporating similar resourceful methods into our world. For more from Rose, you can follow her on Twitter.