Support Grows for Disaster-Resistant Infrastructure

A displaced home leaning on its front side after a hurricane.

As more natural disasters occur, lawmakers and policymakers at all levels of government are realizing the importance of a resilient infrastructure, but more needs to be done to make that a reality, according to experts speaking at a congressional hearing last month.

The Sept. 26 briefing on Capitol Hill was held by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) to examine resiliency in Puerto Rico two years after Hurricane Maria.

A 6.0 earthquake that struck Puerto Rico offshore two days before the hearing was “a reminder that rebuilding Puerto Rico’s resiliently should be an urgent priority,” Anna Denecke, ASCE’s director, infrastructure initiatives, wrote in a blog post on the group’s Infrastructure Report Card website.

There has been some positive bipartisan movement in Congress, Congresswoman Jenniffer González-Colón (R-PR) said at the briefing. González-Colón applauded the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, of which she is a member, for passing her amendment to the Stafford Act that governs emergency response.

“Gonzalez-Colon’s amendment redefines critical services to include first responders, public housing, solid waste management and port and surface transportation systems including access roads to hospitals,” Denecke wrote. “HR 2242 will maximize FEMA’s impact to better assist in the recovery process.”

During a briefing panel, Power Line Systems president and CEO Otto Lynch recommended that Puerto Rico’s grid be rebuilt to ASCE 7 standards, which addresses minimum design loads for buildings and other structures for loadings, such as wind, ice, snow, flood and seismic loadings.

“Doing so will help ensure poles and lines can function better in the instance of a major storm and that vulnerable residents and populations can access reliable electricity,” Denecke wrote.

As category 5 Hurricane Dorian in August sat over Grand Bahama for 36 hours, every pole on a 22-mile line that was designed to ASCE standards remained standing, Lynch said.

Other panelists recommending targeted solutions to improving Puerto Rico’s infrastructure, including Hector Colón, chair of ASCE’s Puerto Rico Report Card and Josefa Torres-Olivo, District III director, U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, Rural Community Assistance Partnership.

The urgency of making infrastructure more resilient extends to all parts of the United States, ASCE’s executive director Tom Smith said at the briefing.

Smith stressed that “building resilient infrastructure was in the best interest of the American taxpayer, as every dollar spent on pre-disaster mitigation and preparedness saves $6 in rebuilding costs after a storm,” Denecke wrote on her blog. “With limited funding available, designing and building resilient infrastructure is ensuring that our investments last.”

After the briefing, Smith told Smart Cities Dive that bipartisan Congressional support for funding resiliency is increasing.

“When it comes to liberal, conservative, left, right, it doesn't matter,” Smith said. “When you talk about resiliency, I think there's been a good recognition about how critical that is and investing in that.”

While substantial progress will likely take time, the increased frequency of natural disasters is spurring some sense of urgency in the minds of a growing number of lawmakers and policymakers, he said.

“I think it's going to force a change,” Smith said. “This is ludicrous what we're doing. Waiting for infrastructure to fail and then going in and replacing it and trying to replace it at the same level doesn't make sense.”

About the Author

Katie Kuehner-Hebert

Katie Kuehner-Hebert has more than three decades of experience writing about the construction industry, and her articles have been featured in the Associated General Contractor’s Constructor magazine, the American Fence Association’s Fencepost, the...

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