Photo of a blacked out Lower Manhattan by Iwan Baan
When Hurricane Sandy reached the eastern United States in late October, it wasn’t a surprise visit – meteorologists had issued warnings about the storm’s approach for almost a week. Although residents and businesses did their best to be ready, the superstorm caught many cities off guard as it attacked the American northeast with heavy flooding and powerful winds that destroyed homes and left millions without power. New York City and parts of New Jersey got the worst of it. Still, the Big Apple is one of the largest cities in the world – a metropolis of a similar size and sophistication as London, Tokyo and Paris. So why, weeks later, is New York City still a muddy mess? Why are there still scores of Americans without electricity, heat, and the ability to return to their homes? Many say that it’s a crumbling infrastructure brought on by years of under-funding and neglect that has been the biggest barrier to post-Sandy recovery. The question is, what are we going to do about it?
Hurricane Sandy earned its reputation as one of the worst storms in New York City history. The storm killed more than 100 people, and over 40 on Staten Island alone. Wastewater treatment plants were overwhelmed during the storm, leading a dozen drinking water systems to issue boil water advisories and hundreds of millions of gallons of untreated sewage to spill into waterways. Roads – and more importantly subways – were fully submerged when storm surges backed up the drainage systems, blocking volunteer aid and preventing people from getting back to work. Power plants were knocked offline due to flooding of generators stored in basements or ground level facilities. As a result, over 4 million were left without power and many ports had to close. Gas shortages further delayed relief efforts, deprived workers of pay, and caused frustration for many. The total dollar amount of the damage is still up in the air, but some have suggested up to $60 billion.
You might think that this severe damage and the slow recovery are a testament to Sandy’s fury, but even human accelerated climate change isn’t the only culprit here. In fact, the scope of Sandy’s devastation was predicted by numerous scientific studies commissioned by government agencies over the past decade. Various studies and models showed that the majority of the city’s largest power plants are located at an elevation less than 16 feet above sea level, making them extremely vulnerable to flooding. In 2009, The US Global Change Research Program found that “the number of [grid outage] incidents caused by extreme weather has increased tenfold since 1992. The portion of all events that are caused by weather-related phenomena has more than tripled from about 20 percent in the early 1990’s to about 65 percent in recent years. The weather-related events are more severe, with an average of about 180,000 customers affected per event compared to about 100,000 for non-weather-related events.” More recently, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the U.S. a D on its report card for infrastructure.
So we’ve known about the acute vulnerability of our energy infrastructure for years. Surely, governments have taken action on that information, right? Wrong. The Atlantic reports that public construction spending, including state, federal and local projects, has been on a staggered decline since early 2009. Congress defends this action by saying that the American people are tired of runaway spending, but is leaving our energy, transportation, and communication infrastructure open to risk really the way to save a little money? No – and the taxpayers are smart enough to know the difference between an inflated military budget and fixing potholes. As noted in the Tampa Bay Times, carefully chosen infrastructure spending is an investment that pays for itself in greater economic growth; in fact, failure to make these investments can retard growth.
The U.S. isn’t the only government struggling financially – but it does seem to be the only one taking it out on infrastructure. Reuters recently reported that China gave the green light to 60 infrastructure projects worth more than $150 billion, as it looks to energize an economy mired in its worst slowdown in three years. Obama, who sought to revitalize the construction industry and our infrastructure through the Recovery Reinvestment Act, acknowledged earlier this year that falling further behind the rest of the world isn’t a wise strategy. “Building a world-class transportation system is part of what made us an economic superpower,” said Obama in a speech last year on job creation. He added that the US cannot “sit back and watch China build newer airports and faster railroads.” And China isn’t the only country leaving us in the dust. “Japan’s public investment in infrastructure for most of the last two decades was two to three times higher than that in the United States,” reports American Progress. The piece went on to say that Japan’s heavy investment in high quality infrastructure saved thousands of lives during the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, not to mention accelerated recovery efforts.
Unfortunately, political paralysis and a bizarre willingness to defund infrastructure projects means New Yorkers, and millions of others on the eastern seaboard, didn’t enjoy the same protection. It’s time for our leaders, at all levels of government, to realize that investing in infrastructure is investing in public safety, economic stability through increased jobs, energy security, and most importantly, innovation. If we truly want to create a better world for our children, the work starts here at home.