Photo by NYC DOT
New York is one of the world’s great cities – and when it was brought to a standstill by Hurricane Sandy, many questioned the state of the city’s infrastructure – and the country’s – in the face of increasingly destructive weather patterns. On the East Coast of the United States, subway tunnels were flooded, construction sites damaged, roads were left under several feet of water and over 7.5 million people were left without power. As a result, many are wondering what can be done to increase investment into the country’s aging infrastructure – and why it has taken so long for any action to be taken.
During Hurricane Sandy New York City’s aging energy infrastructure was torn asunder as a few feet of water knocked out generators stored in flood-prone locations. Governor Cuomo has squarely placed the blame upon ConEd and LIPA, saying that their response to the city’s power outage was out of touch and ineffective. He has also created a commission to investigate the way that NYC’s utilities responded to the storm, saying: “serious questions have been raised about the adequacy of utility management, structures, resources, the currently regulatory framework and oversight to ensure effective preparation for and response to natural disasters.”
It’s not just NYC – the infrastructure issues that enabled Hurricane Sandy to knock out New York are emblematic of crumbling grids, communication networks, and hard infrastructure across the United States. Despite President Obama’s infrastructure stimulus several years ago, much of the United States’ infrastructure investment has been paralyzed by partisan wrangling and hasn’t been passed through Congress. However now in the wake of Sandy, it is expected that Congress and the President will approve federal financing programs and streamline regulatory approvals to move billions of dollars for planned investments into construction.
So which areas need investment, and what can be done in the short term while we wait for funding legislation to be passed?
Energy Grid Infrastructure
Although the vast majority of New York was plunged into darkness during Hurricane Sandy, the 60,000 residents of New York’s Co-op City were never without power. This was all due to the fact that the large housing community is powered by an independent combined heat and power (CHP) plant.
The cost-efficient and fully independent CHP system is able to generate both electrical and thermal energy from the same fuel source, and it can operate completely independent of the grid. Speaking about Siemens’ innovative product, Herb Freedman, a principal of Marion Real Estate, Inc which manages the community said: “Hurricane Sandy hit Co-op City about as hard as it hit most anywhere else in New York, but all residents had power before, during and after the storm.”
While a CHP plant may work for certain sized communities, it is clear that alternative energy infrastructure is also an essential investment. While America’s infrastructure must meet the ongoing needs for natural resources, industrial products, energy, food, transportation, shelter and effective waste management, if it truly wants to continue to be a world leader in the 21st century, sustainable infrastructure must be developed.
Communication and Utility Infrastructure
In the wake of rising sea levels and more aggressive weather systems, it is clear that America’s sewage systems, water treatment systems, and flood control systems need to be upgraded. Structural and non-structural designs need to be addressed, and all infrastructure systems must be designed to protect the natural environment and withstand both natural and man-made hazards.
However it won’t just be the big things. Hurricane Sandy proved that a disaster can also cripple communications and information systems. As such, telecommunications systems, such as cable TV, cell phones, and Internet systems will all need more secure and elaborate infrastructure installations.
The EPFL School of Engineering has developed a smart communication infrastructure system that can be quickly deployed after a disaster. Known as the Swarming Micro Air Vehicle Network (SMAVNET), it is a group of flying robots that create a communication network for rescuers. Unlike traditional city communication systems (which can be hampered or destroyed by disasters), the robots are able to overcome difficult terrain to provide line-of-sight communication so ground rescuers can contact each other and bases of deployment.
Urban Transportation Infrastructure
Because of the US’s car-heavy culture, streets and highways are essential transportation conduits, so their maintenance and improvement will continue to remain an important challenge. However in order to cut the country’s emissions, alternative transportation systems such as mass transit, bicycling, and walking will all have to be encouraged and supported.
New York has a great public transportation network, although its extensive subway system was completely incapacitated due to flooding from Hurricane Sandy. Fortunately, the Department of Homeland Security has devised a giant inflatable plug that could mitigate flooding issues in the future. The 32-by-16-foot plugs are just prototypes for now, but with enough preparation they could be placed in subway tunnels and inflated, keeping water out like enormous bathtub stoppers.
Road and Bridge Infrastructure
The crumbling state of America’s road and bridge infrastructure was horrifically demonstrated when the I-35W Bridge collapsed in Minneapolis in 2007, killing 13 people. The sad fact that is that most of America’s infrastructure, which was built in the 1950s, is now coming to the end of its useful life. Unfortunately, the cost to modernize it could run as high as $2.3 trillion. However, at present, the amount of investment that goes into infrastructure is only 2.4% of the GDP – which is half of what it was 50 years ago.
However President Obama has made some progress. On March 22, 2012, he issued a new executive order to “improve performance of federal permitting and review of infrastructure projects” – however the order has been criticized for being short on substance and long on studies and steering committees. It is hoped that in the near future the President will be able to implement infrastructure projects without congressional approval and without waiting months for a steering committee plan.