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Disaster extraction

According to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), weather events will likely become more frequent and extreme and climate patterns will change resulting in greater cyclonic activity, greater fire threat, drought, floods, and other natural disasters, many of which destroy homes and businesses in greater and greater numbers. Such disasters are horrifying to the victims and troubling to the rest of us because we sympathize and also vicariously give thanks that we are not in their shoes. We will provide our best wishes or prayers and perhaps donate a few dollars to help recovery efforts. Numerous scientists and laypeople find these events part of the body of evidence justifying policy action on climate change and if that helps facilitate a workable global agreement, I can't fault that thinking. In fact, in a 2006 article published in the journal Science, researchers concluded that climate change was more influential on wildfire activity and intensity than forest management practices. The authors noted that the greater biomass accumulation due to modern forestry practices in conjunction with earlier springs and increasing drought frequency and warmer weather overall created a complementarity resulting in unprecedented catastrophic fire danger.

Yet one element of the disaster equation that hasn't seen much debate relates to the pulse of resources that will be required to replenish the devastated community. How much timber must be cut and how much ore must be mined to provide the building materials necessary to rebuild a wiped out city or town? As storms become more prolific and more powerful and wildfires consume more residences, how much timber is going to be felled to rebuild them? Related to this question is where we allow these structures to be situated and what kind of building codes will we put in place to minimize future destruction. More on this below. New building products are also manufactured, marketed, and consumed to retrofit existing structures either shortly before or after disasters to enable them to better withstand future storm events which could even include sales of plywood and chipboard for hurricane preparation.

In 2008, more than 1000 homes were lost in wildfires in Southern California alone. To rebuild these homes (average size 2190 square feet) will require approximately 14,200 board feet of lumber not including panel products. Using the Doyle rule for estimating board feet and taking two 16 foot logs at 24" dbh as an example results in approximately 360 board feet of lumber. So each average sized home would consume 39 trees with a width of 24 inches and at least tall enough to use 32' of the trunk at dbh. That is a substantial tree and an old one at that. Replacing 1000 homes would require 14,200,000 board feet and 39,000 trees of this size (or many more of less size). These cuts would be in addition to the "normal" extraction rate expected for forests in the course of a year. For Douglas Fir at a density of between 50-75 per acre, you would be cutting 520 acres of nearly old-growth trees to replace these homes...for one year of burn in SoCal. Since many acres of timber also burn in these fires, fires that generally take out smaller trees and tree plantations and leave older growth relatively intact, the pressure to cut old-growth forests is heightened. The 2009 California wildfires have burned more than 525 square miles of land and reduced hundreds of structures to ash and twisted metal. So far in 2009, California wildfires fires are notable for being so prolific outside of the normal fire season for this area which begins in October and ends around March corresponding to the Santa Ana winds.

Hurricane Katrina is estimated to have destroyed over 275,000 homes. To replace these would require nearly 4 billion board feet of new lumber. Add the number homes lost due to severe flooding, tornadoes, and other storms and you can see that the extractive industries make out quite well in these circumstances. But it is not only trees that are harvested to replenish these lost homes and businesses. We also need to factor in the mining of gypsum for wallboard, copper for wiring and plumbing, iron ore for the iron and steel found in everything from furnaces to cabinet hinges. And don't forget the petroleum derivatives found in everything from the wall and floor coverings, wire sheathing, lighting fixtures, and the 70 gallons of heating oil left in the tank in the basement. Obviously the list goes on and on and this is only meant to illustrate how much needs to be replaced or repaired and where it's going to be coming from. Indeed we need to cut more trees, mine more minerals, and pump more oil all to replace the house lost in the fire, flood, or storm. Finally, factor in the massive amount of packaging these materials are generally embedded in for shipping, the fuel spent transporting them to the job site, and the energy used in assembling the structure, and the numbers keep adding up. Multiply these figures by natural disasters on a national or global scale from cyclones, hurricanes, floods, fire, earthquakes, and landslides plus human caused disasters ranging from civil conflict and war to poor building construction and contamination-forced evacuations near mining, chemical, or other industrial areas. And while not the focus of this piece, don't lose sight of the fact that most of these losses impact poor and working class people living on more marginally valued lands.

The other end of the disaster equation involves massive quantities of waste. Countless tons of debris from natural and human created disasters will be shipped to landfills, buried, or incinerated. This will result in more greenhouse gasses generated from incineration and the breakdown of organics in landfills. It will also poison soil and water with a long list of contaminants. Few are interested in salvaging or recycling from this waste stream. As the EPA's page on Disaster Debris notes, "When disasters like floods or tornados hit a community, solid waste management is usually the last thing on anyone's mind." but it is somewhat reassuring that the EPA even has a page for this situation. Also included here is the waste generated by retrofits discussed above including discarded plywood hurricane shutters.

Clearly over a century of disasters have not influenced policymakers sufficiently to tighten building codes and prohibit siting of homes and businesses in hazard zones like flood plains, coastal areas, and fault zones or not subsidize their replacement in those same areas with government insurance forcing all of us to foot the bill for poor decisions. Notwithstanding the harm to sensitive environmental areas that this siting usually causes, nobody but the owner should shoulder the risk for the benefit of an ocean view. And there is no question that building codes in certain areas have been modified after the fact in reaction to major events like earthquakes and hurricanes (e.g. Hurricane Andrew), but still manufactured homes and other structures especially sensitive to storm damage proliferate. Certainly the insurance industry led by the IBCC supports a stronger set of uniform building codes nationwide to better prepare for and withstand natural disasters. Finally, the more our homes and businesses are clustered in denser, walkable communities, built with durable and lasting materials (instead of the same cheap planned obsolescent garage-fronted chipboard and EIFS piece of garbage on the cul-de-sac built seemingly everywhere today) the better situated we will be minimize damage from natural disasters. We will also generate much less waste and maybe protect our forests and mountains for a few more years. At some point, a clear post peak oil environment will not facilitate business as usual regarding disaster response.


IPCC, 2007: Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptations and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, M.L. Parry, O.F. Canziani, J.P. Palutikof, P.J. van der Linden and C.E. Hanson, Eds., Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 7-22.

Science, "Warming and Earlier Spring Increase Western U.S. Forest Wildfire Activity,"
A. L. Westerling, H. G. Hidalgo, D. R. Cayan, T. W. Swetnam; 18 August 2006:
Vol. 313. no. 5789, pp. 940 - 943 and at

Virginia Tech Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation:

Wikipedia, 2009 California Wildfire Season at

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