Improving U.S. Resiliency and Response to Terrorist Attacks

Engineers, social scientists discuss application of technologies and strategies

Release Date: June 21, 2002 This content is archived.


NEW YORK -- The terrorist attacks of September 11 and threats of future terrorism against the U.S. have prompted calls to improve civil security and emergency response to terrorist acts.

Leading researchers in the fields of earthquake and blast engineering, as well as social scientists with expertise in disaster response, have gathered today to examine the events of 9/11 and explore ways to make structures more resistant to terrorist attacks and reduce risk to inhabitants and emergency responders.

During a two-day workshop, June 24 and 25, organized by the Multidisciplinary Center for Earthquake Engineering Research (MCEER), headquartered at the University at Buffalo, the researchers are discussing lessons learned from the September 11 attack. And they will offer recommendations for how government leaders, engineers, emergency personnel and private citizens might better prepare for future terrorist attacks.

The purpose of the workshop is to review how knowledge, developed over decades in the fields of earthquake engineering and disaster research, can be used to help make communities more terrorism-resistant. The ultimate goal is to harness technologies, knowledge and best practices used to prepare for various complex natural and manmade disasters and apply them in the fight against terrorism, with the goal of saving lives and improving emergency response.

Workshop organizers include George Lee, director of the Multidisciplinary Center for Earthquake Engineering Research (MCEER), headquartered at the University at Buffalo, and UB Samuel P. Capen Professor of Engineering; Michel Bruneau, MCEER deputy director and UB professor; Richard Little, director of the National Research Council's Board on Infrastructure and the Constructed Environment; Kathleen Tierney, professor and director of the Disaster Research Center at University of Delaware, and Rae Zimmerman, professor of planning and public

administration and director of the Institute for Civil Infrastructure Systems at the New York University Wagner School of Public Service.

Chief among the topics to be discussed at the workshop is how technologies and knowledge developed to enhance the seismic and blast resilience of buildings and infrastructure can be used to help design "terrorist-resistant" buildings and infrastructure.

"We witnessed the effects of a very large scale attack on September 11, but what's more likely to happen in the future is the explosion of a car bomb parked near a building or a bridge," explains MCEER's Bruneau, who led a team of researchers who investigated damage to buildings near Ground Zero. "Such an explosion pushes structural elements to their load-bearing limits--to the point where they fail. This is very similar to what happens in an earthquake."

"Some of the tools and techniques we've developed over the past 20 years to make structures seismically safe may be used to make structures more resistant to terrorists attacks," he adds.

According to Bruneau, these earthquake-engineering technologies include:

-- Redundant structural systems -- designed to reduce the risk of catastrophic collapse by transferring loads supported by lost or damaged columns to columns still in tact.

-- Structural Dampers -- designed to absorb and reduce damaging vibrations in buildings and bridges.

-- Advanced Materials -- blast-resistant coatings for buildings, designed to shield them against blast.

According to Little, of the National Research Council, lessons learned from other structural failures -- ranging from the collapse of the Oklahoma City federal building to damage done to buildings as a result of snow loading during winter storms -- also should be applied to design of terrorist-resistant buildings. He recommends development of a "unified technology transfer approach" to improving structural resiliency in the event of earthquake, blast or other extreme loading conditions.

This transfer of technology, Little adds, would include sharing with the private sector findings from an extensive blast-mitigation research and testing program conducted over the past four years by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) of the U.S. Department of Defense. In its report, "Protecting People and Buildings from Terrorism: Technology Transfer for Blast-effects Mitigation," the NRC recommends that architects, engineers and builders be provided with DTRA research on prevention of window shattering and hardening of masonry walls.

"This information transfer is crucial because it will ensure that innovative engineering techniques are used to produce a new generation of architecture -- open, safe and attractive buildings that are neither bunkers nor fortresses," Little says. "By transferring government-

sponsored research and testing into widely available design guidance, better buildings can become a reality."

Buildings, however, are not the only structures that need to be more terror resistant, points out Zimmerman of the New York University Institute for Civil Infrastructure Systems. Infrastructure -- transportation, water, energy, communication and waste removal -- is critical to disaster recovery, yet people tend to take infrastructure for granted, she says. Zimmerman's study of New York City's infrastructure after the WTC attacks revealed a need for greater resiliency and flexibility.

"To a large extent, the resiliency of New York City's infrastructure on 9/11 was a matter of luck, the existence of some well-designed infrastructure created decades earlier that enabled quick response, and the work of some excellent problem-solvers," says Zimmerman. "However, we need to begin building additional flexibility into our infrastructures to ensure that we have alternative systems in place when disruptions occur."

An analysis of New York City's emergency response on 9/11 also points out the need for improved planning and coordination of emergency resources, according to Tierney of the University of Delaware Disaster Research Center.

"On September 11, we saw massive mobilization of emergency response personnel and massive movement of resources of all kinds into the city --whether they were needed or not and whether they were requested or not," Tierney says.

"Like other cities that have experienced major disasters, New York City had to develop ways of managing that huge influx of personnel and resources," she adds. "The World Trade Center attack posed even more complex management challenges than many natural disasters, since it resembled a disaster, but was also a crime scene and a national-security emergency. With the anthrax attacks in October, officials were also faced with responding to a public health emergency. Communities around the country must learn how to contend with this high degree of complexity."

Tierney notes that it is important that other communities learn from New York's experiences and incorporate lessons learned into their own planning for terrorism-related events.

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