Sandy’s Teachable Moment on Infrastructure

In a remarkable development, the devastation from Sandy now is finally moving a least a portion of the national conversation onto the very important topic of infrastructure and how we need to renew our degrading infrastructure in addition to hardening it against new waves of damage due to weather extremes brought on by climate change. Consider this bit of truth-telling from Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy on Rachel Maddow’s show last night:

But it’s not just Malloy who sees the need to have the future in mind during the recovery from Sandy. Today’s New York Times carries an article in which New York Governor Andrew Cuomo discusses how preventive steps need to be taken in the near future:

On Tuesday, as New Yorkers woke up to submerged neighborhoods and water-soaked electrical equipment, officials took their first tentative steps toward considering major infrastructure changes that could protect the city’s fragile shores and eight million residents from repeated disastrous damage.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said the state should consider a levee system or storm surge barriers and face up to the inadequacy of the existing protections.

“The construction of this city did not anticipate these kinds of situations. We are only a few feet above sea level,” Mr. Cuomo said during a radio interview. “As soon as you breach the sides of Manhattan, you now have a whole infrastructure under the city that fills — the subway system, the foundations for buildings,” and the World Trade Center site.

The Cuomo administration plans talks with city and federal officials about how to proceed. The task could be daunting, given fiscal realities: storm surge barriers, the huge sea gates that some scientists say would be the best protection against floods, could cost as much as $10 billion.

It is sad that such a level of devastation is needed before there is talk of action. As recently as last month, the Times carried yet another warning that exactly this type of damage was becoming increasingly likely:

But even as city officials earn high marks for environmental awareness, critics say New York is moving too slowly to address the potential for flooding that could paralyze transportation, cripple the low-lying financial district and temporarily drive hundreds of thousands of people from their homes.

Only a year ago, they point out, the city shut down the subway system and ordered the evacuation of 370,000 people as Hurricane Irene barreled up the Atlantic coast. Ultimately, the hurricane weakened to a tropical storm and spared the city, but it exposed how New York is years away from — and billions of dollars short of — armoring itself.

“They lack a sense of urgency about this,” said Douglas Hill, an engineer with the Storm Surge Research Group at Stony Brook University, on Long Island.

Instead of “planning to be flooded,” as he put it, city, state and federal agencies should be investing in protection like sea gates that could close during a storm and block a surge from Long Island Sound and the Atlantic Ocean into the East River and New York Harbor.

And it was exactly that storm “surge from Long Island Sound and the Atlantic Ocean into the East River and New York Harbor” that flooded lower Manhattan and the New York subway system. Considering that estimates yesterday on the financial impact of Sandy were already going as high as $25 billion (and I expect that number to go up by a lot as more damage is discovered), an investment of $10 billion for a surge barrier, coupled with a massive push for revitalizing and hardening the electrical and transportation systems behind the barrier, looks like a very wise investment. Sadly, though, as Malloy points out, half the country doesn’t believe in infrastructure investment. At least, that was the case before Sandy. Will infrastructure scrooges who were directly impacted by the storm finally see the importance of being proactive, or will yet another teachable moment be lost?

Many years ago, Jim got a BA in Radiation Biophysics from the University of Kansas. He then got a PhD in Molecular Biology from UCLA and did postdoctoral research in yeast genetics at UC Berkeley and mouse retroviruses at Stanford. He joined biosys in Palo Alto, producing insect parasitic nematodes for pest control. In the early 1990’s, he moved to Gainesville, FL and founded a company that eventually became Entomos. He left the firm as it reorganized into Pasteuria Biosciences and chose not to found a new firm due a clash of values with venture capital investors, who generally lack all values. Upon leaving, he chose to be a stay at home dad, gentleman farmer, cook and horse wrangler. He discovered the online world through commenting at Glenn Greenwald’s blog in the Salon days and was involved in the briefly successful Chris Dodd move to block the bill to renew FISA. He then went on to blog at Firedoglake and served a brief stint as evening editor there. When the Emptywheel blog moved out of Firedoglake back to standalone status, Jim tagged along and blogged on anthrax, viruses, John Galt, Pakistan and Afghanistan. He is now a mostly lapsed blogger looking for a work-around to the depressing realization that pointing out the details of government malfeasance and elite immunity has approximately zero effect.

10 replies
  1. der says:

    I don’t doubt that included in that 1/2 who don’t want to spend money that advantage the moochers and takers are the very wealthy Wall Street Masters who would get a benefit from any improvement. Conversations about tomorrow and planning for the future are for latte sipping liberal do-gooder Paul Krugman types, losers. So we kick the can. We are led by evil and stupid.

  2. Jim White says:

    @der: I think that this week sissy-boy Nate Silver is included in the group of people who need to be discredited by those folks, too.

    On a separate note, Jay Ackroyd pointed out on Twitter that this teachable moment should also “embed climate change into our infrastructure programs”. I was being kind of sneaky in the post: that was the underpinning for saying we need to harden infrastructure. It needs to be hardened against the impacts of climate change.

  3. allan says:

    It’s too bad that the millions that were poured into Ray Kelly’s police state infrastructure weren’t used instead to make NYC secure from actual threats. Although, to be fair, that white-water rafting trip upstate could count as flood preparedness training.

  4. What Constitution says:

    So when do we start hearing suggestions to withhold Federal assistance because it’s “those people’s fault” for living so close to the water or for not having higher seawalls in place since 1822?

  5. GulfCoastPirate says:

    If you try to build a gate network of some sort across LI Sound won’t that back up the water coming in at places behind the gates? The flooding would be worse on LI itself and in Connecticutt and Rhode Island. Isn’t something similar what we saw down in New Orleans this summer as those outside the new levees got more water than ever before?

  6. Casual Observer says:

    I caught Maddow’s show last night by fluke (hardly ever tune in) and was delighted she decided to drop the shill and cover news for a moment. Such was Sandy’s power that it even blew Maddow off her hack.

    Malloy’s comments just seemed a perfect setup for a new stimulus program, focused on infrastructure in the crumbling NE, providing a potential cascade of jobs.

  7. Fractal says:

    Time to re-watch Harry Shearer’s documentary, “When the Levees Broke.” Extensive discussion in that stellar production of engineering to control ocean surges that is in place and currently being used on the Thames (London), and around all of the Netherlands (Holland). It doesn’t need to be re-invented, and no, it doesn’t “make the floods worse somewhere else,” at least not according to the engineers interviewed in Harry’s movie.

  8. Jim White says:

    @Casual Observer: I caught the show last night for the first time in over a year. I blame the end of the World Series and my extreme lack of interest in the NBA.

    I agree with how Malloy’s comments seem well poised for a major movement. I had not seen him before and was very impressed.

  9. klynn says:

    “It needs to be hardened against the impacts of climate change.”

    Now you need to add to the end of that quote, “…for national security.” Infrastructure, climate change and national security are wired together. Which then covers a great amount of economic security too.

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