A professional approach to disaster

One of the roles of professional engineering and scientific societies is to conduct reviews of engineering disasters and help to provide guidance on how to create more reliable designs, structures, etc. in the future. These organizations often convene groups of engineering experts, scientists, legal experts and others to create these studies.

One study I have used in my class was developed by the American Society for Civil Engineering in response to a request for review of the failure of the hurricane protection system in New Orleans during and following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  This report, entitled “The New Orleans Hurricane Protection System: What Went Wrong and Why”, was created in response to a request to the Society to study and report on the work performed by the  Interagency performance Evaluation Task Force (IPET), a group convened by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to review the performance of the New Orleans and southeast Louisiana hurricane protection systems.  The report, writtien by the ASCE External Review Panel convened for this purpose, is available for download at http://www.asce.org/uploadedFiles/Publications/ASCE_News/2009/04_April/ERPreport.pdf.  It is about 90 pages long and is a tremndous resource for learning and teaching about this infamous disaster.  Further, ASCE has published a report entitled “Guiding Principles for the Nation’s Critical Infrastructure”.  This document (available at http://www.asce.org/Content.aspx?id=2147485369) was the result of an industry summit convened in order to “identify content for a guidance document outlining key attributes required for successful, safe, resilient, and sustainable critical infrastructure systems. The document will assist in proactively preventing infrastructure catastrophes such as the levee failures in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina or the collapse of the I-35W Bridge in Minneapolis.”  (from the website).

It is easy to see that this material is an extremely valuable resource for teaching students about what can be learned from engineering disaster.  I have had students download these documents (in whole or in part) and we have used these to guide discussions in class.  Of course, similar studies and reviews are being conducted by professional organizations in response to the Gulf oil spill.  A new website has been established by the National Academy of Engineering which will collect information on what went wrong which caused the spill, and what can be done to prevent such disasters in the future.  The site is entitled “Blowout Prevention: Analysis of the Deepwater Horizon Explosion, Fire and Oil Spill” (http://sites.nationalacademies.org/BlowoutPrevention/). 

As in the case of the Katrina study by ASCE, the study by the National Academy of Engineering/National Research Council has been requested by the government (department of the Interior), and the purpose of the study is, according to the website, to “address the performance of technologies and practices involved in the probable causes of the Macondo well blowout and explosion on the Deepwater Horizon. It will also identify and recommend available technology, industry best practices, best available standards, and other measures in use around the world in deepwater exploratory drilling and well completion to avoid future occurrence of such events.”

As the causes of the Gulf oil spill disaster continue to be explored (as noted in current news stories from the Associated Press and other sources), and sections of the failed blowout preventer (among other materials) are brought to the surface for analysis, the NAE/NRC website will be an excellent place to look for evolving resources resulting from careful study and review.  This type of material will provide excellent teaching and learning resources for courses involving engineering disaster.

2 thoughts on “A professional approach to disaster

  1. Gulf Oil Spill

    “As the causes of the Gulf oil spill disaster continue to be explored…”

    While I can understand the potential the reports have for teaching students, I’m curious about what actions can be learned and implemented to prevent this type of incident from happening again.

    There are a number of things that went wrong here, including both mechanical breakdowns, operator error, and bending the rules where safety was concerned.

    I look forward to reading the analysis when all is said and done.


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