Sandy Aftermath: How to Fix a Broken System

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Post Hurricane Sandy: Ortley Beach, N.J., Nov. 10. Tim Larsen / NJ Governor's Office

The politically ambitious governors of New York and New Jersey just might secure their parties’ presidential nominations in 2016, provided they follow through on their promises to rebuild in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

Democrat Andrew Cuomo of New York and Republican Chris Christie of New Jersey both put themselves in the forefront of relief efforts and then promised that, come the next big storm (or, unsaid, another terrorist attack), the hardships will not be nearly as severe, because they will have invested in restoring the public and corporate infrastructure.

We cannot “risk letting history repeat itself with devastating consequences for our residents and our state,” Cuomo tells Newsweek.

The two governors attacked the shortcomings of the area’s electric utilities after millions of people in the tristate area were literally in the dark for days on end. Electric power may not be fully restored until Thanksgiving—in part because over the past two decades as the nation’s population grew by a fourth, the number of utility workers fell by a fourth.

Christie went so far as to warn New Jersey’s four electric utilities to get the power back on, pronto—or face a political storm he called Hurricane Chris. Cuomo, meanwhile, threatened to revoke the license of every electric utility in the Empire State, because so many people lost power and restoration has been excruciatingly slow. Then he appointed a blue-ribbon panel, with subpoena power, to investigate the utilities.

With voters desperate for a faster economic recovery, tired of do-nothing partisan gridlock, and eager to see problems solved, producing even modest but demonstrable success in restoring the public furniture could propel either governor to his party’s nomination in 2016. Indeed, pretty much any project that would reduce commute times between New York and New Jersey would be a sure vote-getter.

Of course, the tough words and promises of rebuilding may just be tales told by politicians, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. As Washington and Wall Street quake on the edge of the imagined fiscal cliff, it’s hard to imagine any politician winning support for massive spending on bridges and seawalls and new electrical poles. That seems about as likely as the Hudson River flowing through Manhattan. Oh, wait, that just happened.

If we are to avoid the next major -catastrophe—and it will come—then we have to start paying the bill now. America spends just 2.4 percent of its economy on infrastructure, compared with 5 percent in Europe. In Germany, the roads are smooth. In France, city halls do not have buckets to catch water from leaky roofs. In Italy, the trains actually run on time and serve surprisingly good meals in the dining car. And in the Netherlands, where existence depends on maintaining the sea gates and seawalls that hold back the North Sea, since much of the nation is at or below sea level, people feel safe from flooding.

Both Cuomo and Christie have built reputations for holding down taxes, but Sandy seems to have given each man an opportunity to do what’s right instead of what’s politically expedient. Christie, breaking with Republican dogma, said that taxes may have to be raised to pay for repairing damage from Sandy, especially in coastal towns. And both governors have promised to marshal the popular support and money needed to make physical improvements in utilities, roads and rail lines, bridges and water systems, and to work to improve telecommunications during emergencies. Achieving all this is likely to mean higher rates for electricity, natural gas, telephone and Internet service, and water, as well as new taxes to pay for making sure highways are more road than pothole.

The governors’ staffs tell Newsweek that much of the money to repair, restore, and rebuild must come from Washington. In this, they are echoing the words of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has been a Democrat, a Republican, and who now calls himself an independent.

Bloomberg says the issue goes beyond storm damage to whether America wants to keep up with the rest of the modern world or fall behind. “We need the federal government to adopt and fund a comprehensive infrastructure strategy—from transportation and technology to energy and environmental protection—that positions the U.S. to lead the global economy for decades to come,” the mayor tells Newsweek.

“You cannot build a skyscraper economy on a foundation designed for a farmhouse; it will collapse under its own weight,” he adds. “We’ve already started to see some of that—and unless Washington acts soon, the country is going to pay a terrible cost in lost jobs, lost lives, and lost opportunities for the next generation.”

These are the kinds of observations that organizations like the American Society of Civil Engineers have been making for years. The society gives America’s infrastructure a grade of D and says $440 billion more must be spent annually just to keep up the existing infrastructure. That is more than $100 each month for every American.

Mayor Bloomberg’s point—that America is falling behind the rest of the modern world economically because we’ve shortchanged infrastructure spending—is bolstered by a new report by accounting firm Ernst & Young that examines the foundations of national economic success. The report hints at looming public-health disasters because sewage treatment plants built when America had 100 million fewer residents are now wearing out, and no governments at any level are financing their replacement.

disasters-earthquakes-FE01-secondary Freeways built half a century ago will collapse like toy blocks in a quake. Lloyd Cluff / Corbis

If we fail to demand sufficient investment in infrastructure, the results are predictable. We can expect more hell and high water in the decades to come, as a half century of quiescent meteorological conditions gives way to the extreme weather that accompanies climate change. But we also can mitigate the damage from nature. If we fail to act, this is what we can expect:

Bursting dams after heavy rains, especially warm rains falling on deep packs of wet snow. There are more than 1,800 dams located above populated areas that pose a high risk of collapse, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Falling highway and railroad bridges, as decades of salt and wear leave them vulnerable to high winds, earthquakes, and fast-running water at their bases. 

Sinkholes swallowing cars, buses, -houses, and maybe even schools, because water mains and sewer lines long past their replacement age remain in use until they burst and quietly, but quickly, wash away the underlying soil.

Massive electrical outages, as limbs and whole trees fall on power lines. Utilities have trimmed their spending on vegetation control while slowing down replacement of worn power poles and switches; a 50-year replacement cycle is considered prudent, but some utilities are operating on cycles that would take an astonishing 775 years to complete.

More flooding, as levees—so many of them that the federal government acknowledges it does not even know how many there are—are weakened by erosion and burrowing rodents until they collapse.

Forest fires, and perhaps urban blazes, that grow into fierce firestorms because of drought and dry air. Fire departments in Los Angeles and some other big cities have for years warned that they may have to dynamite whole neighborhoods to stop out-of-control conflagrations during windy summer weather.

Commutes disrupted for weeks, maybe months, as rail lines, roads, and tunnels are rebuilt.

All of this would mean needless death and anguish, destruction of goods, interference with the flow of commerce and higher fees and taxes, as pennies saved on preventive work now grows into dollars foolishly spent on remediation.

Much of America’s infrastructure was built in the two decades after World War II, when the economy was growing steadily. Today, a good portion of that infrastructure is at, or long past, its time for replacement. Yet politicians have continued to cut and cut spending on the basics needed to promote commerce and safe travel, while ramping up giveaways to corporations. States and local governments give corporations at least $70 billion a year in gifts, subsidies, and tax breaks—about $900 for a family of four, and more than the average family’s weekly take-home pay. Think about that cost the next time you have to pay for a front-end alignment because your car ran into a field of potholes.

In booming China, infrastructure gets 9 percent of the economy. The communist capitalists know that economic growth and the easy flow of goods for export requires smooth, fast highways, reliable rail freight, big storm drains, and other public-works projects. Those investments, and the commerce they enable, mean jobs, jobs, and more jobs, and the projects wind up paying for themselves in the end.

So here are a dozen projects where investing corporate and tax dollars in infrastructure would not only pay off now by creating jobs and making the economy more efficient, but would save lives while reducing future costs:

Accelerate replacement of -natural-gas pipelines. During Sandy, leaking gas fueled hundreds of fires, including blazes that, despite the torrential rains, reduced to ashes about 200 homes in the Breezy Point section of Queens and the New Jersey coastal town of Mantoloking. Earlier this year, New Jersey Natural Gas chairman Laurence M. Downes boasted to shareholders about his company’s “rock-solid infrastructure.” But deep in his annual report’s fine print was this scary fact: the company planned to slash pipeline spending, including maintenance, from $121 million this year to just $70 million in 2013. Pipelines laid in open fields back when Truman and Eisenhower were in the White House remain in use, their corroding shells running beneath or past schools, hospitals, and tot-lot parks. When the steel walls fail, the tearing metal will spark, creating a zone of certain death hundreds of feet wide.

disasters-fires-FE01-third Expect ever-fiercer fires fed by drought, dry air, and high winds. Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP

Stop AT&T and Verizon from shutting down the old copper-wire telephone system, the only telecommunications that work when the electric grid goes down and cellphone-tower batteries run out of juice. Maintaining even a partial system—akin to the old police communications boxes that let officers call in before they carried radios—could save lives during emergencies, including any future terrorist attacks.

Demand that electric utilities replace power poles as they wear out and maintain equipment, especially changing oils in large transformers before they congeal and stick, to reduce long-term costs. And hire more utility workers. When utilities keep enough staff on hand to maintain systems, taxpayers will not need to fly linemen and cherry pickers in military cargo planes from California to New York.

Increase tree trimming to prevent downed electrical lines during storms, and move more lines underground to make the electric grid more reliable.

Promote smaller grids instead of the vast multistate grids now being developed that can throw tens of millions of people into darkness because of one mistake or even one fallen tree limb.

Develop a 10-year plan to tear down, rebuild, or strengthen every dam rated risky by the civil-engineering society before a combination of heavy rains and hubris give us a deadly, unnecessary remake of the 1889 Johnstown flood.

Replace within a decade every large water and sewer main past its predicted life, with an emphasis on the largest pipes—some of which are nine feet across and operate at pressures of 80 pounds per square inch. Water mains break at the rate of nearly 800 per day.

Place big warning signs on every highway bridge, advising motorists of when the structure should have been rebuilt or replaced, and when, if ever, work is scheduled to begin.

Invest in riprap seawalls that extend perpendicular from the shoreline into the sea. These structures capture drifting sand and build up and maintain sand dunes and the vegetation that holds them in place. With seawalls, the natural flow of sand in the water turns narrow coastal beaches into wide stretches that reduce damage to barrier islands and waterfront communities during hurricanes.

Replace rail lines running through marshlands, like the NJ Transit lines feeding into Manhattan, with elevated structures. This would limit commuter service disruptions after future storms, and allow for more natural flows of water and life in nature’s nurseries.

Rebuild marshes and other natural barriers, like oyster reefs, that absorb the shock of storms; these barriers have been ravaged by development in the last two centuries.

Require detailed emergency plans by natural-gas, electric, water, and telecommunications utilities as a condition of keeping their licenses. And make sure these plans are publicly available and the subject of biannual public hearings in each town to create public awareness of the dangers and what is being done to minimize them.     

We could, of course, do none of this. We could just continue consuming our dwindling infrastructure assets, treating each bridge and dam collapse, each new sinkhole, and each new pipeline explosion as something natural and beyond our control. Or we could watch as our economy remains in the doldrums, buffeted by disasters made by nature and our own choices.

We could. But would that make any sense? 

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