Sandy’s most horrific impacts and their length are not primarily the result of a 100-year storm. The enormity of destruction and extended time for recovery were predictable, indeed expected, because of the age and deplorable condition of New York and New Jersey’s infrastructures.
The deteriorated and obsolescent state of transportation and utility systems let alone flood control and shore protection were precursors not only of the destruction that occurred, but the lack of resilience of our infrastructure in both damage control and recovery modes. No mystery here! Sandy’s outcomes were predictable and known for years in advance.
Politicians and government officials are already talking about lack of preparedness and holding those responsible accountable. Their cries of foul have no credibility. Those now crying the loudest are in the seats of power that are responsible for a generation of neglect of our infrastructure, which is now estimated to cost $2 trillion to make right nation-wide.
The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), perhaps the world’s oldest and most prestigious engineering society, has published for years an annual report card on the condition of America’s vast infrastructure. These reports are widely publicized and the annual subject of in-depth Congressional testimony. Year after year conditions have declined to the point where an overall nation-wide grade of D is even in question. Even the most chilling assessments citing imminent risks to public health and safety often go unheeded. The History Channel and other media present stunning documentaries on “The Crumbling of America.”
What now? We must reshape our world by restoring our built environment now. The naysayers say it can’t be done or we can’t afford it. The truth is we can’t afford not to do it unless we are willing to decline as a nation to a subsistence lifestyle with less for everyone.
What are the real keys to success nationally, and especially in coastal New York and New Jersey? First, we must recognize that even a 21st century of herculean effort to stem climate change and environmental degradation created by humanity over centuries, if not millennia, will not result in any significant reduction in the risk of natural disasters let alone manmade ones. Second, given the absolute certainty of further catastrophic events, the top priority must be to enhance our infrastructures’ ability and resilience to not only survive but also deal with the outcomes.
Compared to influencing climate change, our construction and related industries could reshape and remediate critical infrastructure with certainty in perhaps 10 years. Note that actual construction work in place in 2007 was $1.2 trillion. Unfortunately, that has declined steadily to about $800 billion with attendant unemployment of up to 20 percent.
We need to rebalance our priorities drastically and do it now. Let’s build a “New American Century"
John Clearwater, P.E.
Member, ASCE, Princeton