Major media coverage of Sandy showed with shocking, awesome clarity the storm’s enormous force, horrific damage, and heroic efforts of first responders and ordinary citizens to save lives, homes, and businesses. Tragically, the media is missing the big take-away from Sandy. The fact is America’s crumbling infrastructure spawned much of the most unimaginable damage and exposed an appalling lack of systems resilience in both damage prevention and control as well as timely recovery.

Reporting of the environmental catastrophe caused by failure of many of New Jersey’s and New York’s Grade D sewer systems exemplified flawed media focus. Stories gave the impression that the unbelievable damage related almost solely to an unprecedented, unexpected storm for which our facilities were no match. Virtually no one pointed out that a major factor in the extent of damage and length of recovery was our crumbling infrastructure itself. As to sewage discharges, truly investigative reporting would have revealed that millions of gallons of untreated sewage are discharged into waterways in the Newark vicinity during every significant rain event because of leaky, grossly deteriorated sewer lines, many in use for 50 to 75 years.

Other Grade D infrastructure systems could be cited as causative elements of damage severity and extended delays in restoring services. Our electrical grid was rated D-plus in 2009. Our nation’s continuing decline is shown by the World Economic Forum’s ranking the U.S. 8th in infrastructure in 2003 and 25th today. Nationally, the U.S. spends 2 percent of GDP on infrastructure. A high growth economy like China spends perhaps 9 percent. The outcomes of gross underinvestment in infrastructure are reflected in precipitous deterioration of capabilities, total capacity, and operational reliability.

As to the future, Sandy gives us yet another once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get it right in terms of creating a proper balance between constructing the built environment we need or perhaps want and the emerging imperative for restoring or even enhancing the natural environment.

Basic to this balance is a common sense, pragmatic assessment of what’s really possible. In the near term, even a Herculean 21st-century effort will not be able to effect positive changes in the earth’s natural environment sufficient to significantly alter the frequency or severity of naturally occurring catastrophic events. That doesn’t mean we should diminish our environmental efforts to counter earth warming, for example but focus more on a “do no harm” approach as we remake our built environment.

Some civil engineers believe that much of what we can build will remediate or improve our natural environment. It is possible to achieve a synergism that improves both our man-made infrastructure and the natural environment at the same time.

As to reshaping our world’s built environment to meet future challenges, we know what needs to be done and as a nation have both the existing expertise and industrial capacity to fix major infrastructure problems in a period of 10 years. We can build more robust and resilient 21st-century infrastructure as well as improve and maintain existing system. Many will say we can’t afford it in these economic times. The truth is we can’t afford not to!

The national scope of the huge task is $2 trillion to arrest continuing deterioration of our infrastructure and reshape our built environment for the 21st century. It may sound mind boggling, but a reasonable start to dealing with waste water would cost $2 billion just in the Newark area. Nationally, in 2008 our construction industry’s actual construction in place (CIP) was $1.2 trillion. In 2011 it was down to $800 billion, a decline of $400 billion in work product with a construction industry unemployment rate rising to over 20 percent in many areas. This reflects underutilized capacity of $400 billion per year in this single economic sector standing alone. No wonder our economy is in the tank and our built environment falling apart. We lost $1.2 trillion of production in three years. Without a turnaround in construction there is no solution to restoring our vulnerable infrastructure let alone our flagging economy and fragile environment.

We need our own Marshall Plan to build a new American century.

John Clearwater, PE

ASCE Member, Princeton

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