Resilience by luck or by design

0 October 30, 2015 at 3:42 pm by

When you think about it, it is quite remarkable to see just how many times communities have dodged rather large bullets due to near misses (or, as George Carlin aptly called them, near hits) from natural catastrophes.

Every so often we get lucky, and once in a while, really lucky. A storm doesn’t get as large as it was forecast, doesn’t go where it was projected to go, or happens on a quiet weekend as opposed to a busy weekday; the earthquake is powerful, but deep or happens in the middle of nowhere; the wind changes direction at the last minute or it rains, keeping a wildfire out of town. If it weren’t for this ‘luck’ (for lack of a better word), deaths, injuries and property damage from natural hazards would be much higher than they already are.

A most recent case of this ‘luck’ came with Hurricane Patricia, at its peak, the strongest cyclonic storm ever recorded. That hurricane threaded the needle, making landfall between the densely populated Mexican resort communities of Manzanillo and Puerto Vallarta and striking the sparsely populated area of Cuixmala. Had it hit one of the larger communities squarely, damage would have been extensive and loss of life high. As it stands, insured damage will sit at around $200 million, according to AIR.

Patricia is just one of many examples where we’ve gotten lucky.


This insulated concrete form house survived a California wildfire, while 200 surrounding properties were reduced to ashes.

Hurricane Andrew, the Cat 5 storm that ravaged areas south of Miami, Florida in August 1992, was – until Katrina – the most destructive hurricane ever to hit mainland United States. Though the storm claimed several lives and triggered insured damage of about $27 billion (2014 dollars), there is no telling how costly Andrew would have been had it hit Miami directly, as was initially feared when the storm was first nearing Florida.

The April 25, 2015 Nepal earthquake, though very powerful, very destructive, and very deadly, occurred on a Saturday. There are photos showing schools that were almost completely destroyed by the event, with concrete floors pancaked one on top of another. Luckily, having occurred on a Saturday, those schools were empty. The death toll would have been much higher had this not been the case.

There are many examples of large loss events of all types, from all over the world, that would have been much worse if it weren’t for (fill in the blank). But these events happen closer to home as well.


This home in Gilchrist, Texas survived Hurricane Ike. The home, elevated 14 feet above the ground on stilts, was the only surviving house in the area.

I’m reminded of a cover photo on The Globe and Mail just a few years ago showing a massive tornado bearing down on Regina, Saskatchewan. The city looked doomed, however the tornado quickly petered out before it hit. Then there was the November 2005 Hamilton, Ontario tornado. The weak F0 peeled the roof off the gym of an elementary school and shifted the building off its foundation. The tornado occurred at about 4 pm, and caused minor injuries to students taking part in afterschool activities. Had the storm occurred earlier in the day when the gym was in full use, the number of injuries would have been much higher.

Then there was Goderich, Ontario, the downtown core of which was ravaged by a F3 tornado in August 2011. Though the storm did extensive damage to the postcard-perfect city centre and killed one person, injuries and deaths were limited because the tornado struck on a Sunday. Had it hit on a workday, the circumstances may have been quite different.

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The 1985 tornado in Barrie, Ontario, destroyed the gable-roofed homes in the foreground and spared the hip-roofed homes in the background.

Consider, also, the Angus tornado of June 2014. The EF2 twister bisected two rows of homes, spinning directly down the centre of the backyards dividing two busy streets. While more than 100 homes were damaged with several needing to be razed, no one was killed and only one minor injury was reported. Had the tornado scored a direct hit on those homes, the circumstances would have been much different.

Tornadoes, wildfires, hailstorms, floods. There are countless examples of how we came perilously close to a large losses in Canada, but ended up dodging the proverbial bullet.

But sometimes an event rolls through an area, levelling almost everything in its path, with the exception of, say, a single home. Was this ‘luck’?

Speak to people on the ground and they will tell you ‘yes’. But forensic engineering analysis often shows that it was a particular feature or features of a property or structure that allowed it to withstand the event, while everything else around it was destroyed.

Here, it’s not luck that played a roll, but resilience.

Whether it is choice of location, design, building materials, landscaping or some combination of all four, it has been proven time and time again that survival came due to an often calculated (and sometimes not so calculated) attempt to build better or otherwise reduce risk by taking certain measures. A hip roof over a gable roof. Insulated concrete form over wood frame. Cement board over vinyl siding. Asphalt shingles over wood shakes. Hurricane straps over toenailing. The list is long.

Unfortunately, the list of individuals and groups that are aware of resilience measures is rather short. So there are few people who consider resilience when they are building or renovating their own properties, few builders and tradesmen that incorporate resilience (beyond basic code) into their clients’ structures, and few governments and other bodies that push resilience into codes and other guidelines, rules, regulations and laws.

So we often end up relying on luck rather than on calculated resilience.

And there’s one thing about luck: it almost always eventually runs out.

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