For the last one month, the tragedy that befell Kerala has seen an unmitigated misery and extreme hardship for the people of the state. The fury of nature that causes floods, earthquakes and other forms of devastation in any time of the year is mostly unpredictable and with no help from any soothsayer they often push the civilisation backwards.
Only in some parts of our country these natural calamities occur with a certain amount of regularity like floods in Mumbai, landslides in hilly terrains and storms and floods in the coastal regions. Thus, while there is abundant arguments in favour of installing technological breakthroughs that can warn in advance the fishermen not to venture into the deep seas as rising tides are expected or the residents in the coastal areas to shift to safer places as depression in the seas is likely to inflict heavy damage, we must implement without delay the various ways and means to minimise the extent of the damage caused by the natural calamities and the innumerable difficulties faced by the residents during and after the incidents.
According to the preliminary estimates, about one lakh buildings, which include individual houses, schools, colleges and government properties, over 10,000 km of highways and roads and hundreds of bridges have been washed away. Waters may be receding now, but to rebuild these assets, the government and NGOs may take years. This rebuilding time can be significantly reduced by adopting steel intensive buildings and small span bridges that were previously concrete and wood based. Experts say even the flood devastation of properties would have been much less, had there been steel intensive buildings and bridges in abundance.
As a matter of fact, efficient design and effective selection of construction materials have always proved to minimize the damage caused by natural disasters. Critics say steel is not an appropriate material for construction where there is susceptibility to water exposure. To some extent unpainted or uncoated carbon steel is in fact susceptible to corrosion in highly saline environment such as Kerala.
However, as far as water is concerned, not only does steel withstand the strength of billions of gallons of rushing water, it is resistant to warping, twisting, rotting, and shrinkage in moist conditions. Steel even resists rust and corrosion with special coatings and finishes, beginning with factory applied galvanization to additional coatings for special. One important point to remember here is that we need to elevate such steel structures on concrete pedestals up to the flood mark. Thus strength of concrete (in compression) and strength of steel (in tension) can be perfectly blended in such structures to give them durability and permanence.
The primary concern in a post-flood area is the growth of fungus. It thrives in areas with high moisture content, an ideal condition for a flooded area. According to the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, fungus can cause a wide range of health problems, minor to serious. Structural elements built with porous building materials are typical breeding surfaces of fungus and are weakened by such growth. On the other hand, steel surfaces are not porous and therefore not prone to such damaging after effects.
Most of the buildings that are broken in flood are damaged beyond repair and therefore need to be re-built completely. Conversely, steel-framed building would not need to be demolished entirely. Since the steel framing itself is durable enough to withstand the fury of flood, we can always replace as many interior or exterior elements (such as floors, walls, insulations etc) as possible.
While the biggest advantage surely would be the speed with which repairs can be made, the sooner such properties are back in shape, the sooner Kerala would be back to its usual dynamic self. Therefore, steel intensive structures (buildings, schools, bridges and culverts) stay in better shape when a flood hits and save worry, money, time and effort. Apart from the relief and comfort for the displaced persons going back early to their repaired buildings or new places, the government can save enough from providing temporary shelter, food and other facilities to the affected households and the saved amount can be more effectively spent on rebuilding and rehabilitation.
With steel structures in place for dilapidated buildings and bridges in the flood- ravaged Kerala, we can at least expect faster constructions that would reduce the financial hit, which is estimated to be in the range of `20,000 crore by the state government. On a long-term perspective, steel-made electricity poles may save them from uprooting during flash floods. The embankments at the sea constructed with steel tubes and steel fabricated structures would provide strength to stand amidst high waves and onslaught from rushing waters.
The writer is a DG, Institute of Steel Growth and Development.