Natural Disaster Vulnerability
Natural Disaster Vulnerability
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Natural Disaster Vulnerability
By: Grant Smith 2 minute read

Burns & McDonnell works with airports across the country, especially those in earthquake-prone areas, to help plan for earthquakes and mitigate the damage they can cause, especially to the fuel systems and fuel farms that pose great potential risk.

Natural disasters have always affected air travel and airport infrastructure. Designing and constructing facilities to minimize damage risk is the key. In 2011 alone, tornados, fire, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions have disrupted travel and devastated airport operations around the world. While no one can eliminate the dangers of such disasters, updating infrastructure and developing a response plan will help weather the storm.

Earthquakes are perhaps the most destructive disasters for airports and aviation facilities. The absence of a warning period means earthquakes can cause more injuries to people in the facilities and major damage to structures that aren't up to par. Earthquakes quickly emphasize where sufficient emergency plans, procedures and policies are not in place.

Burns & McDonnell works with airports across the country, especially those in earthquake-prone areas, to help plan for earthquakes and mitigate the damage they can cause, especially to the fuel systems and fuel farms that pose great potential risk.

Facilities built before the early 1970s lack the structural steel and other design features required by modern building codes. Older structures are more vulnerable to major earthquake damage, but newer structures may avoid collapse but still suffer permanent damage. This depends, of course, on the magnitude of the quake, the soil conditions and the structure's proximity to the epicenter.

The U.S. West Coast has the biggest threat of earthquakes and the tsunamis that may come after them. The recent 9.0 magnitude earthquake in Japan demonstrates how modern design and construction can withstand the effects of a major earthquake. All major airports in Japan were operating within a few days of the earthquake - without substantial infrastructure damage.

The only airport taken out of service for an extended time was Sendai Airport, which was devastated by the tsunami that followed. Many airports on the U.S. West Coast have upgraded their facilities during the past 30 to 40 years, building to meet stricter seismic codes. Some facilities, however, predate the 1970s, when many structural design improvements were mandated in building codes.

Other natural disasters can significantly disrupt airport facilities. The tornado that hit Lambert-St. Louis International Airport in April 2011 caused considerable damage to a terminal building. The airport had enough capacity to switch flights to gates that were not damaged, creating flexibility while damage was repaired.

A March 2011 fire at Miami International Airport was not a result of a natural disaster, but it did show the importance of the fuel supply in airport operations. The loss of the hydrant pumping system significantly reduced fuel flow to aircraft and resulted in hundreds of cancelled flights. Getting these systems back into operation soon after a problem like this requires planning. The operator, airlines, airport and fuel suppliers need to coordinate resources. While the exact system or site of a failure can't be predicted, a plan can be in place to establish qualified contractors, define the chain of command and identify organizational structure ahead of time.

Emergency response plans are developed for fuel spills and required by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for large bulk fuel facilities. This can be expanded for infrastructure damage.

Burns & McDonnell is helping airport and aviation clients identify vulnerable assets and develop emergency response plans for all types of airport and aviation facilities. The Burns & McDonnell Fueling Group provides emergency response planning for fuel facilities and fuel farms at airports.

Natural disasters — even those that come with some degree of warning — require careful response planning. Steps can be taken in design and construction to mitigate damage and minimize losses. Devising an appropriate plan is a big step toward keeping your airport or aviation facility intact in the wake of a natural disaster.

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