[Paleopsych] NYT: Disasters Waiting to Happen

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Mon Sep 19 01:15:02 UTC 2005

Disasters Waiting to Happen


    MORE than a thousand miles of levees stretch east from San Francisco
    Bay. They protect the cities and the farmland in the Sacramento-San
    Joaquin delta of California and keep salt from the bay out of the
    drinking water of millions of people. But those levees are
    deteriorating, experts say, raising the odds of a Katrina-like
    disaster for the nation's most populous state.

    The delta and its maze of levees are high on the list of public
    infrastructure considered to be subpar. That list - which also
    includes highways, dams, ports and bridges - is growing as government
    outlays for repair lose out to budget cutting. The American Society of
    Civil Engineers, whose 137,000 members are involved in virtually every
    public works project undertaken in the United States, says that $1.6
    trillion must be spent over the next five years to prevent further
    deterioration. Only $900 billion is now earmarked.

    Absent the additional spending, said Lawrence Roth, deputy executive
    director of the society, "every natural disaster is going to be more
    destructive than it needs to be."

    Infrastructure deteriorates in more than one way. There is lack of
    maintenance: roughly 13,000 highway fatalities each year, for example,
    are a result of inadequate maintenance of aging highways, the civil
    engineers say. And there is overuse: the levees in California, many of
    them built by farmers to convert marshes to farmland, now must be
    strengthened to prevent the destruction of newly built communities.

    "This is the fastest-growing region in California, and the bulk of
    that growth is taking place on the flood plains," said Jeffrey F.
    Mount, a geology professor and the director of the Watershed Center at
    the University of California, Davis. "What we are doing is creating
    our own New Orleans."

    To Professor Mount, there is too much deterioration of public
    infrastructure for the next disaster to be thought of as unheralded.
    Even before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, for example, there
    was wide public awareness of the potential crisis that New Orleans
    faced from its inadequate levees. Yet nothing happened. Why? Repairing
    or rebuilding infrastructure to protect the public is expensive, and
    the nation is spending less.

    Total government spending on public infrastructure - that is, spending
    by states and municipalities as well as by federal agencies - amounted
    to roughly 2.25 percent of the gross domestic product in the early
    1950's. It rose to about 3 percent in the Eisenhower era of interstate
    highway construction and in the Kennedy and Johnson years. Through the
    1980's and 1990's, however, infrastructure investment fell well below
    2 percent, and is now just below that level.

    AS spending lost ground, standards changed. Current criteria rely more
    on a cost-versus-benefit formula, in contrast to the grander visions
    of those earlier years. Does the benefit from a public investment
    exceed the cost? Laced into that calculation is a gamble: benefits
    that rarely occur are not counted. A levee system in New Orleans
    capable of withstanding a Category 4 hurricane like Katrina is not
    counted because such storms are fairly rare.

    John Paul Woodley, the assistant secretary of the Army for civil
    works, says he struggles with this standard. He has jurisdiction over
    the Army Corps of Engineers, which takes the lead in building and
    maintaining public works along the nation's waterways, including
    thousands of miles of levees. For the first time, Mr. Woodley is
    pushing to postpone some projects so that more can be spent on others.

    "I have more works in progress than the budget can fund at an
    efficient level, and that is a problem," Mr. Woodley said in an
    interview. "I have two options then. I can rigorously prioritize and
    decide that some will be quickly finished and others postponed, or I
    can spread the money across all the projects, deferring the completion
    dates for all of them but postponing none. Our 2006 budget calls for
    suspension of a large number of projects in order to concentrate on a
    small number that will be completed efficiently."

    In California's delta, that approach translates into $20 million this
    year to improve the levees that protect Sacramento, the state capital,
    at the confluence of the American and Sacramento Rivers, and to
    strengthen the Folsom Dam, upstream from the city. But virtually no
    federal money is earmarked for other nearby levees that protect
    smaller communities, cropland and the conduits that bring drinking
    water to Southern California.

    California's state government struggles with that issue. The
    Schwarzenegger administration has proposed more spending on the levees
    than the Legislature has been willing to approve. Katrina raised
    awareness of the benefits to be reaped, but even before Katrina, a
    1997 flood damaged or destroyed more than 30,000 homes and businesses,
    and a rupture in a levee last year resulted in $100 million worth of
    damage and repairs.

    "It is possible that we are not spending enough on levees, and it is
    also possible that the people moving in behind those levees are not
    being charged enough - for flood insurance, for example," said Joshua
    D. Angrist, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
    "If they were required to pay for flood insurance, they might not
    build there."

    Although the delta and its levees are gaining attention now, after
    Hurricane Katrina, there are near-disasters that never come to public

    The Army Corps of Engineers, for example, shut down the Greenup Locks
    and Dam on the Ohio River, upstream from Louisville, Ky., two years
    ago for what the corps thought would be two weeks of routine
    maintenance. Closer examination, once the work started, revealed much
    more deterioration than anticipated and the locks remained closed for
    eight weeks, during which coal could not move up the river on barges
    to power plants that supply electricity to the Midwest.

    "We came very close to not having enough coal to power those plants,"
    Mr. Woodley said. The coal did get through before stockpiles were
    exhausted, so in this case the public never noticed. But power
    failures would undoubtedly have produced plenty of public outcry.

    Locks on the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers shut down more often than Mr.
    Woodley would like. "If I had more money," he said, "I could reduce
    these shutdowns to a level that I might consider satisfactory."

    In this age of rationed public spending, the deterioration of vital
    public works is increasing, and with it the potential for disaster.
    The American Society of Civil Engineers, for example, reports that
    while federally owned dams are in good condition, more than 3,500 dams
    maintained by states and local governments are "unsafe" - and the
    number is rising.

    "There are a lot of these small dams, and they can do a lot of
    damage," said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, director of the Congressional
    Budget Office. "The Johnstown Flood is a famous example of a small dam
    failing and doing a lot of damage." (That flood, in Johnstown, Pa., in
    1889, took more than 2,200 lives.)

    Something similar is happening with drinking water systems. Instead of
    an outlay of $11 billion annually, the amount the civil engineers
    consider necessary to replace aging pipelines and other facilities,
    federal spending is only $850 million. Highways and bridges also
    suffer from a shortfall. The highway bill signed by the president this
    summer stipulates an outlay of $286.4 billion over five years for both
    new construction and maintenance. Various Republicans, including Mr.
    Woodley, consider $318 billion as the minimum needed just for

    States are filling some of the gap. Bridge tolls are rising in San
    Francisco, for example, to help finance a new eastern span for the San
    Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge that is more earthquake resistant than
    the portion of the bridge damaged in the 1989 earthquake. "In these
    cases, people make a decision about the level of risk they want the
    infrastructure to withstand," said Ellen Hanak, a research fellow at
    the Public Policy Institute of California. And if the risk is
    considered great enough, they fund it.

    Assessing risks, the Army Corps of Engineers chose to spend $30
    million this year to build or enlarge 57 miles of levee along the
    Mississippi River near New Orleans - but on the west bank, across from
    the city.

    Did the construction ameliorate the damage from Katrina? Mr. Woodley
    does not think so. "My initial impression," he said, "is that it
    protects an area not struck by the surge."

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