Building resilient infrastructure

Natural disasters have been hitting the U.S. with a frequency that seems to be increasing. The effects of hurricanes like Katrina and Sandy, and most recently, the terrible tornadoes in Oklahoma, have raised major concerns about the state of our nation’s infrastructure and its ability to withstand and quickly recover from these kinds of catastrophes.

Hurricane Sandy caused damage worth billions. During the Superstorm, water from the Hudson River cascaded into the city’s streets, and poured into our subterranean World Trade Center PATH Hall project. The lower levels of the site filled up with 165 million gallons of water.

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photo credit: david_shankbone via photopin cc

Sandy hit close to home for my fellow New Yorkers and I because we lived through it. Several Skanska employees lost their homes, and our company set up a fund to help them. We couldn’t believe what we were seeing. Lower Manhattan was blacked out with no electricity. The subway system was shut down. New Yorkers are used to going fast – then suddenly, we couldn’t go at all.

The design criteria used to create the infrastructure that surrounds us is based on what’s happened in the past regarding such factors as weather and seismic activity, but with changing weather patterns, history likely doesn’t reflect our future. We need to change how we design and build. If we had more resilient infrastructure and if we had operated it in smarter ways, would the impact from Sandy have been less? Definitely.

Our big problem: U.S. infrastructure isn’t resilient

Resilient means being able to flex and not break under added stress. But our infrastructure can’t handle that – it’s already at its limits.

This March, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave a D+ grade to U.S. infrastructure. ASCE predicts a $1.6 trillion infrastructure funding shortfall by 2020.  This is a major problem.

Here’s an example of non-resilient infrastructure: during Hurricane Sandy, Manhattan’s tunnels didn’t have basic systems for blocking water, such as plugs or floodgates. These are features found on many other tunnels worldwide that we could also be using in the U.S.

Our infrastructure problem originates with a mindset that focuses on disaster relief rather than disaster avoidance. We’re kicking the can down the road – we’re quite good at that. But thinking smarter and paying a little more money up front can save a lot of money later. Ed Rendell, former Pennsylvania governor and Philadelphia mayor, said that when it comes to investing in our infrastructure: “The cost of inaction is greater than the cost of doing something.”

Each hurricane easily costs us billions to rebuild and recover. Instead of continuing to spend money to clean up, we could make some smaller, smart investments to protect our citizens. What we see is that America is really good at recovering from these disasters but not very good at preparing for them.

We need to accept that there’s nothing practical we can do to fully protect ourselves from the impacts of extreme weather. If we’re talking about another Sandy, the water is going to come. We can’t stop it. The question then becomes how do we best manage and channel that extra water, and at what scale?

Building with resiliency in mind

Mega projects to stop floodwaters that such countries as the Netherlands and the U. K. have undertaken aren’t necessarily the best solution for the needs of the U.S. We don’t have to make giant investments to make our infrastructure more resilient. You can spend less money and still get a big impact. We need to plan and build new infrastructure with resiliency in mind. It may cost  more initially to get that added protection, but doing so will provide long- term value and still be more manageable a cost then with mega projects

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The University Medical Center that Skanska is building in New Orleans is a great example of building to resist a hurricane. The structure is replacing another hospital that was ruined by Hurricane Katrina. Here’s how this new hospital will be ready for another mega storm.

– The medical floors are located on the second floor – 17 feet above ground level to be out of the reach of flood water (the ground floor is non-critical administrative space that is intended to be sacrificed during a major flood).
– Emergency room entrances are located on the second floor, which will be reached via a vehicular ramp.
– All major mechanical and electrical equipment is on the roof.
– There’s a seven-day back-up supply of potable water.

Everything critical has been raised up. Following Sandy, other hospitals that are planning building projects are taking the time to rethink those plans to make sure those facilities will have the proper level of resiliency.

Power lines atop wooden poles – technology that hasn’t changed for probably a century – is another issue infrastructure issue in many American cities. These power lines are knocked out too easily when storms come through. As lines are replaced or upgraded, we should be burying those lines underground in watertight vaults and raising substations out of reach of most typical flooding situations.

PSE&G – an electrical utility in New Jersey – is investing $3.9 million to harden its system. As a nation, we’re coming to recognize that these changes have to be made. The next step is establishing the platforms and framework for achieving a more resilient infrastructure across the U.S.

Better protection through improved operations

But we don’t have to wait to make major investments to be more resilient in face of our next natural disaster. We can start by responding more smartly following natural disasters so we can get our infrastructure up and running as quickly as possible.

For example, as Sandy approached New York, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority  shut down the transit system and moved trains and busses to higher ground to prevent damage. They also removed signaling equipment as an additional precautionary measure. Because of this smart thinking, when the water levels went down the subway and bus lines could restart more quickly because there was less damage.

Click below to see and hear my recent presentation on building resilient infrastructure prepared for the Journalists Forum on Land and the Built Environment at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.

Richard Cavallaro

Richard Cavallaro

President and CEO, Skanska USA

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