After Hurricane Harvey, can we please rebuild our infrastructure in a way that makes sense?

  • Published on September 11th, 2017

At The ConversationThaddeus R. Miller and Mikhail Chester write—6 rules for rebuilding infrastructure in an era of ‘unprecedented’ weather events.

Residential neighborhoods in Houston, Texas near Interstate 10 sit in floodwater in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times)
Residential neighborhoods in Houston, Texas near Interstate 10 sit in floodwater in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times)

By Meteor Blades

Unfortunately, Harvey delivered and then some with early estimates of the damage at over US$190 billion, which would make it the costliest storm in U.S. history. The rain dumped on the Houston area by Harvey has been called “unprecedented,” making engineering and floodplain design standards look outdated at best and irresponsible at worst.

But to dismiss this as a once-in-a-lifetime event would be a mistake. With more very powerful storms forming in the Atlantic this hurricane season, we should know better. We must listen to those telling a more complicated story, one that involves decades of land use planning and poor urban design that has generated impervious surfaces at a fantastic pace.

As the Houston region turns its attention to rebuilding and other cities consider ramping up efforts to make their infrastructure more resilient, it is this story that can provide valuable lessons for policymakers, planners, engineers, developers and the public. These lessons are all the more important against the backdrop of a Trump administration that has stripped requirements for infrastructure projects to consider climate impacts and may try to offer an infrastructure investment package. […]

Here are six rules for investing in infrastructure for the 21st century that recognize the need to rethink how we design and operate our infrastructure.

If we design with the technologies, needs and climate conditions of the 20th century, we will no longer serve society and the hazards we will encounter now and in the future.

Proactive maintenance first. […]
Invest in and redesign institutions, not just infrastructure […]
Design for climate change. […]
Manage infrastructure as interconnected and interdependent. […]
Create flexible infrastructure. […]
Design infrastructure for everyone.

Large disasters almost always highlight systemic social inequalities in our communities, as we saw in the 1995 Chicago heat waveHurricane Katrina and now Hurricane Harvey.

Yet as cities rebuild and other cities watch to glean lessons, we consistently sidestep the historical legacies, public policies and political-economic structures that continue to make low-income and minority populations, such as homeless people, more vulnerable to extreme weather events. For this to change, infrastructure must be designed with the most vulnerable in mind first.

Too often the services delivered by climate-resilient infrastructure are first built for the communities that have the economic and political power to demand them, resulting in what some have called ecological gentrification. Policymakers and planners must engage diverse communities and ensure that infrastructure services are designed for everyone – and communities need to demand it.

About the Author

Meteor Blades is a writer and contributing editor at DailyKos. He believes there is something profoundly wrong with our system. - the unchecked accumulation of wealth and power into the hands of a very small group of corporate business interests has contributed to the wholesale corruption of our political system. For an understanding about the level of corruption in our country, he encourages you to view these two PBS documentaries: (1). ,The Untouchables; (2) The United States of ALEC.