Research News

After the lecture: Bob Bea and a lifetime spent outwitting disaster

Nearly 10 years post-Katrina, the engineer who co-led a team that investigated the New Orleans levee system reflects on what it takes to have resilient and sustainable infrastructure -- and the next generation of engineers

Bob Bea, once dubbed the "master of disaster," now spends most of his free time sailing off California's shores. Not long ago, he was toiling full-time to keep those waters from wreaking havoc on the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta area, as part of a Resilient and Sustainable Infrastructure Networks (RESIN) project.

The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta area is a critical infrastructure intersection that has experienced repeated levee failures and has been a long-term case study in hazard prevention. Lessons learned there are being applied across the country. Floods alone kill an average of 127 Americans a year--more than tornadoes or hurricanes--and cause more than $2 billion of property damage annually.

The RESIN project at the University of California, Berkeley was funded in 2008 by the National Science Foundation to create new approaches for risk assessment and management. The goal was to bolster resilience and sustainability in interdependent, interconnected, interactive critical infrastructure systems.

Bea, a senior researcher, was well acquainted with risk when he headed up the project, which served as a capstone to a 60-year career, one that took him from an oil rig in Louisiana to the steps of Capitol Hill.

These experiences propelled him forward in his engineering career and drove him to try to answer a seemingly simple question: Is this safe?

Life lessons from engineer Bob Bea:

A good friend once said, "Engineers want to believe the planet isn't inhabited." That statement was a keystone to my NSF project. It helped to slowly raise a curtain on the fact that the planet is inhabited by people.

In the Delta infrastructure project, we were struggling to answer the question, "Is this safe?" So, we asked, "Does it meet codes and guidelines?" And the answer was yes. But then we had to ask, "Then why is it failing so much?"

I didn't want to admit it (and didn't until end of this project), but it came down to the fact that we engineers were using traditional thinking to answer the question and it wasn't working.

The missing element was people. It was too idealistic. As part of RESIN, we developed guidelines that included human components. When we did that, boy did the answers change!

We'll call it "the planet is inhabited" factor. With that, we got good agreement between expectations and performance.

If you don't think an extreme environment has an effect on what people do, think again.

When I was 14 years old, I had to get a special permit to work. I started on a roofing crew in Florida. After that first summer, I went to work with a septic tank cleaning crew. It was a lot cooler, but it sure was stinky. I maneuvered through that set of experience, my mother and father, God bless them, nurtured me through it.

I thought there was one kind of engineering, because my father was an engineer. But then I realized there are all kinds! As a result of lifelong interest in the ocean, I became a civil and ocean engineer.

I once found myself being a rough neck out on an oil rig. Those big, heavy structures are remarkable. They're out in the shallow waters of Louisiana. So that's the ocean connection. That's exactly what good fortune had been lining me up for. The oil rig was fun, hard, physical work, but I learned about structures and systems--and in particular learned about the people who work on them. They assigned me to the same office my father was in. I said I can't work in same office as my dad! Let me go back for a master's and ocean engineering qualification.

When I stopped teaching in 2012, I left behind a group of very intelligent students and a steady process of improving the education of engineers. My qualifications for being a teacher were close to zero though. My wife is a qualified teacher. She's an early childhood education specialist.

Mixing social scientists and engineers can be an explosive process. But in the end there was a group who had learned to respect and learn from one another. They became the core of the RESIN project.

People think structures are safe when you say there's maybe a 98 percent chance it will succeed. But that 2 percent means you could lose 2,000 people. Working with certain organizations often means working with people who are only focused on the short term. It gave me some fascinating insights.

Disaster management often focuses on fixing things, as opposed to making investments that prevent things from being broken to begin with. The cultural element is important.

To answer the question of whether something is safe, we have to answer the question what does safe mean? Zero percent chance of failure? One percent chance? The best way to put it is that we focused on answering a question that has not been well-defined. That's kind of frustrating.

At one point we started to look at similar places in other countries. Boy, did we find something startling. All we could see was their taillights; they were ahead of us. So we worked together.

I know my limitations and so first thing I try to do is to surround myself with smart people. They may not look like me or talk like me, but they're smart and trying to solve the same problem. I learned a lot from people in Australia and Amsterdam about how to improve systems here.

In 1965, I'd just come out of working on an oil rig and I was living in Louisiana. I purchased my first home, got married and my first son was born. I had a nice home in eastern New Orleans. Then a storm named Betsy came through and breached the levees. I lost everything. Forty years later, right after Katrina, I go back to that homestead and the new owners are dragging wet, oily mattresses out of the front door, just like we had done 40 years before.

Earthquakes, floods... all that can happen anywhere. We have three actively maintained earthquake caches with food, medical supplies, fuel, batteries, enough to keep us alive for three weeks unsupported. If we have to, we can survive. No guns though.

Resiliency and sustainability is a long-term investment, yet we tend to work it into the short term. You can't just create resilience. Not easily, anyway. It must be long term.

Katrina. I learned a lot, but there is more to be learned. The 10-year anniversary of Katrina will be next year. In the meantime, the rebuilt flood protection infrastructure is newer, but in my opinion not significantly better than existed before Katrina. [Bea co-led the Berkeley team that investigated the New Orleans levees.]

From RESIN, we learned a lot, but the essential crux is the interface between what people want done and what people do. We have technology to answer the question "is it safe?," but we haven't quite learned how to progress to the next step of making it work.

The secret is education. We have to change basic educational processes and only then are we going to find a way to bring those words to the public in a way that won't glass their eyes. In the end, sustainability and resilience turns out not to be a technical problem, it turns out to be a social problem.