Monday, August 27, 2007

Beyond Bridges: America Thinking Ahead?

On a recent cross-country flight from LA to Boston I picked up a copy of MIT's Technology Review magazine. Much of it (especially the nanotechnology and chemistry articles) went right over my head, but a feature article on Holland's new policy on climate change protection caught my attention.

In a departure from the traditional strategy of raising sea walls and constructing more dams, the government and private sector companies have teamed up to re-envision and re-landscape areas of immediate vulnerability, as well as plan ahead for regions where rising waters could one day pose a threat.

The article doesn't spend much time commenting on the United States, but one MIT researcher makes the following statement--

"He notes that in the U.S., as in the Netherlands, planners and engineers have historically focused on the strength of seawalls and levees, not the extent of the destruction that could occur if they failed. "In the past, our approach has been, 'We will protect to a certain-level hurricane,' without trying to translate that into, 'What does that mean in terms of risk to the population?'"

European researchers have also begun to simulate the effect of extreme weather patterns on a continent very different from today--one where development begins to replace traditional farmland in the coming decades--a smart and necessary step in understanding what types of planning are necessary. Research alone, however, is taking place around the world, and it seems every city has run simulations on potential destruction possible in worst case scenario situations. What's most necessary is the foresight in government to heed the warnings.

Again, from the magazine--

Part of the problem in the United States, Link [a former R&D Dir. with the Army Corps of Engineers]notes, is that the federal government has little control over land use, and local governments are often unwilling to challenge developers in areas that may face higher threat levels. In the Netherlands, the federal government can take more control, says Balfoort. "Sometimes you must make a top-down decision for the benefit of the nation as a whole," he observes.

The Minneapolis bridge collapse has brought about a strong reaction from various US politicians attempting to right the wrongs of the tragedy. John McCain criticized pork barrel spending on transportation bills as the reason that issues of bridge safety and structural testing have been ignored, and a number of other lawmakers and state leaders have pledged to test and repair dangerous bridges. Coincidentally, Senators Chris Dodd and Chuck Hagel introduced a new transportation and infrastructure overhaul bill only hours before the bridge fell (

I also think about Hurricane Katrina and America's passionate call to rebuild New Orleans and the levees that failed nearly two years ago. The Dutch built the best levees they could (many are capable of withstanding storms that make landfall only once in ten thousand years). They've come to realize that it might not be the smartest idea to keep putting themselves at risk. Don't get me wrong, I sympathize with those who feel the residents of New Orleans deserve their homes and neighborhoods be rebuilt and given a second chance, but part of me asks why we don't just close off a few areas from resettlement and understand that building ten feet below sea-level on all four sides might not the most enlightened option on the table.

What remains to be seen is whether America's representatives in Washington can pull together both progressive (Dodd and Hagel's bill) and reactive bills (Clinton's new infrastructure proposal) along with believers in both big and small government to finally heed the warning and put words into action. Columbine, Virginia Tech, the Sago Mine disaster, and the warnings of rising CO2 emissions are all examples of unanswered warnings. I only hope we start to realize that bridges won't repair themselves, just as gun laws and global warming won't fix themselves on their own.

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