(Re)building for Resilience20 Aug 2020
Riding Out The Storms Ahead
Models from researchers and meteorologists predicted a forceful hurricane season in the Atlantic this year. If these predictions hold, we can expect millions of dollars in damage to electrical transmission and distribution lines, roads and levees, and other local infrastructure along the coast. Knowing these threats will come – if not this season, then the next – state and local governments have a duty to invest in stronger infrastructure.
Regardless of how effectively we limit emissions, our climate policy cannot focus solely on energy and emissions. It necessarily must focus on infrastructure resilience: The strength and sturdiness of our buildings, roadways, levees, power grid, and more.
As this hurricane season rolls on, it is too late for preparatory investment. If areas do experience damage, then we must focus on rebuilding, strengthening, and climate-proofing our infrastructure going forward.
How Should We Rebuild?
As a practical matter, we rebuild based on the high standards of engineers and not the ideas of policy wonks or ideologues. But there remains space for policymakers and legislators to think through an optimal strategy of how to craft policy to best allocate resources and fix policies that limit productive efforts.
If we only rebuild to make a bridge or road what it was before the disaster, a similar or more powerful storm or incident will simply damage it again. We should not merely put our infrastructure back in its starting place. We should rebuild for resilience. We should take the failure of the original design and learn from its weak points.
This may call to mind a famous thought experiment born from stories of World War II. When confronted with returning planes shot almost to ribbons, a gut reaction of many was to strengthen those wings and rudders that were pierced through. This would put the plane back into its original state and guarantee it was operational for future use.
But after reflecting, it was clear that these planes were the ones that did come home, so by implication, the place that needs improvement is the place that was not as damaged. The planes that never made it back must have been struck in the cockpit, fuel tank, and engine – not simple wing and exterior damage.
This is not a perfect analogy, but one to highlight a mindset of repair and rebuilding. When we look at infrastructure that is damaged, we should not try to put it back together how it was – this may be akin to repairing the wings. We must strengthen the foundations, reinforce the design, and guarantee that policy allows us to allocate resources to rebuild it better.
Again, the materials used and building technique are not the focus, but the policy mindset to allow those expert engineers and builders to create resilient infrastructure. Believe it or not, there are policies specifically designed to limit rebuilding efforts. Not that they were devised as a way to harm or reduce recovery – quite the contrary, they were devised to improve responsiveness and resources from the federal government. But in doing so, they set rules and guidelines, both budgetary and policy, that prevent improvements.
A Better Way?
It may be time to reexamine policies like the Stafford Act and others when it comes to rebuilding infrastructure as emergency relief. Many are working to do just that. Contentions with this policy and other state and local rules point to limitations that infrastructure must be rebuilt to its original state, not to allow long-term investment or improvement. Or that they require an area to experience disaster before it can have access to modernization and improvement funds.
Whether it is federal aid or investment funds, or state, local, or private ones, policy must allow proper investment and modernization, not limit funds for rebuilding non-resilient designs. This may mean designating separate relief and modernization funds more deliberately or incentivizing private investment.
Where relief funds are concerned, safeguards are still needed; rebuilding a million-dollar project into a billion-dollar one is not appropriate. This is not the goal of resilient infrastructure, and cost-benefit can and should still be a guiding principle.
No single piece of legislation makes or breaks effective emergency response or infrastructure policy. But every policy should be crafted with both eyes open toward the limitations it imposes and the incentives it creates or destroys.
We must incentivize resilient infrastructure before and after disaster
Resilient infrastructure is something that will stand the tests of wear and tear, persevere storms and disasters, and even improve efficiency day-to-day. This may look different in different sectors or different parts of the country. Certainly undergrounding of utilities comes with high costs, but also benefits. It may be well suited in some areas and not others. Smart grids, micro-grids, and multidirectional flow capability for power will be useful for ensuring power through and after storms, and allowing new renewables and storage to tie in seamlessly.
These examples are only useful as illustrations, not policy. To implement them in practice takes knowledge and expertise on the ground, and a review of the costs and benefits in the particular instance.
What can be stated from afar is that policy should be geared to allowing roads, bridges, dams, levees, power lines, and more to be improved from their old damage-vulnerable state. When we look to the other side of the storm, we should still see our infrastructure, standing resiliently, holding strong, and doing its job. By putting it back to its original state, every storm amounts to a guessing game if the infrastructure will be damaged and need repair once more.