Innovative Thinking: Will Hurricane Damage Escalate US Infrastructure Plan?

Hurricane Irma destruction

A small view into Hurricane Irma’s impact on Florida’s infrastructure. Photo courtesy of The Daily News of Newsburyport

Innovative Thinking” has blogged several times about America’s infrastructure, the issues that need to be addressed and how it will impact the civil engineering industry (see “Infrastructure Now Showing Signs of Sinking(May 9, 2017), “North Carolina’s Infrastructure Report Card(March 14, 2017), “The Infrastructure Plan – It’s Big, but the bigger question is when?(February 2, 2017), and “America’s Infrastructure Report Card” (October 19, 2016).

Given the horrific damage caused by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, it seems timely to bring up the infrastructure topic once more. Outwardly, there is obvious reconstruction that will have to take place to highways, roads, and power grids, but what about what we don’t see that lies underground? What’s the impact to sewers and treatment systems, drainage systems, buried cables, etc.?

Before Irma hit Florida, The New York Times posted a revealing article titled “Irma Will Test Florida’s Infrastructure, From Dikes to Sewage Plants” by Henry Fountain on September 9, 2017. The article takes a long look at the state’s infrastructure, it’s current condition, and what could be expected after-the-fact. The outlook is somewhat bleak:

And Florida, like every state in an era of tightening budgets, has deferred costly maintenance on much of its infrastructure, said Addie Javed, a former president of the Florida section of the American Society of Civil Engineers.

“Deferred maintenance is the biggest problem; later or sooner you’re going to be paying for that,” he said. “You want to make sure that your infrastructure is in top shape when a disaster like this happens.”

According to TheStreet’s article “Hurricane Irma Reveals the Huge Dangers and Costs of Destroyed Infrastructure” by Eric Reed, there are immediate, as well as long term consequences to aged infrastructure when natural disasters hit:

Hurricanes, and more importantly the resulting flooding, can cause what experts refer to as a cascade failure among vital services. As water wipes out individual sections of local infrastructure the load gets redistributed, putting more stress on the entire network. This makes each surviving component at once more fragile and more critical, at a time when usage often spikes as people attempt to respond to or flee from a storm.

“There is the way that a plan is established, ‘If X happens we will do this,'” said Thom Ricket, vice president with Trident Public Risk Solutions. “You have secondary and sometimes tertiary backup systems.”

“[But] the systems, the infrastructure piece — if it’s overwhelmed, if a bridge collapses — there’s not really a backup plan other than rerouting traffic,” he added. “And then if you do, then you’re creating congestion and a chokepoint in an area that may not have been designed to handle interstate traffic.”

What will be interesting to see in the coming months if these hurricanes and the resulting damage they’ve imposed on the US’s infrastructure, particularly in Florida and Texas, will create an infrastructure revival sooner, rather than later in our country. More information on that position from Forbes’ Hurricane Aid Could Kickstart Trump’s Big Infrastructure Planby Bryan Rich.