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Thoughts From Engineers: How to Avoid a Regional Disaster

Chris Maeder on March 31, 2021 - in Articles, Column

Some 160 years ago, in an effort to remedy the Great Stink of 1858, which refers to a time in London’s history when the Thames River was used as an open sewer, an unknown English engineer by the name of Joseph Bazalgette was hired to design and build a network of sewer pipes for central London. He decided to size the sewer pipes to be twice the diameter judged necessary to address the problem at hand. He wasn’t expected to plan and design for future scenarios but forged ahead anyway to avert potential shortcomings down the road.

In the end, the sewer system far exceeded the original budget, but was key in eradicating a savage Cholera outbreak in the city and cleaning up the Thames River as well. Bazalgette not only became a national hero for saving millions of Londoners from dismal living conditions, but the London sewer system rose to fame as a major achievement in world-class engineering. Most importantly, this same sewer system met London’s sanitation requirements for another 150 years or so and continues to be in use today. What do examples such as this teach us about the value of proactivity and solid investment as we consider how best to fortify U.S. infrastructure?

Obviously, many factors distinguish present times from 19th century London. The variety of engineering tools at our disposal as well as our ability to tackle problems with state-of-the-art technology and troves of data certainly are improvements. Despite these advantages, we still contend with major uncertainties: the principal one being the scale and scope of climate change and how well our built environment will hold up in the years and decades to come. Lately, record-breaking weather events test our cities on a regular basis.

In February 2021, for example, a polar vortex swept across the United States, causing temperatures to plummet and a series of catastrophic events to unfold—domino like—as one support system failed after another. Although rare in the south, the frigid air wasn’t unforeseeable. In 2011, hundreds of generators failed in Dallas following a similar deep freeze, leaving millions of Texans without electricity. Modern structures and amenities created buffers against the elements, but last month Texans reverted to primitive methods for survival: hunting for wood, makeshift backyard fires, and snow in buckets to be boiled for washing and drinking. A systematic effort to prevent a repeat of the crisis of 2011 should have resulted in efforts to weatherize and bolster the power grid. Instead, the tipping point was reached, systems buckled and too many suffered.

Awash in a Crisis of Our Own Making

The basic facts surrounding the recent crisis in Texas and neighboring states now are familiar. Unable to accommodate the rush to heat homes, Texas’ power grid failed along with other power systems across the south. Millions were without electricity, and 72 counties in Texas were ultimately declared federal disaster areas. Power failures led to freezing pipes, which caused breaks in water mains, flooding and interruptions in water-treatment infrastructure.

The shortcomings in planning and general preparedness led to a different type of crisis in Houston in 2017. Historic challenges related to the management of flooding in Houston’s urban areas led to the construction of reservoirs to channel and retain water. Wetlands and open spaces surrounding the reservoirs remained undeveloped until recent years, when even these areas were developed. In a state that has for years dismissed the value of zoning, dense housing and pavement drastically reduced the city’s ability to absorb water. When Hurricane Harvey hit in August 2017, water had no escape. Over-development in areas that should’ve been left as open space, vast swathes of impervious surface area, and heavy rains created an unprecedented and singular disaster.

These incidents underline the risks of planning that’s profit-driven and short-sighted, particularly in this age of extreme weather events. Coordination among agencies and interdependent infrastructure, communication with multiple stakeholders, and the use of an innovative mix of safeguards and tools are all designed to protect the public and keep dangerous conditions at bay. Although the factors that precipitated the recent failures in Texas are complex and under investigation, these incidents show how vulnerable many regions throughout the United States really are.

Value in Infrastructure Investment

We’re faced with a situation not unlike the one encountered by Joseph Bazalgette in 1860s England. We can build to minimum standards and save the city some cash, or we can build resilience into the system, even if this means making a sizable upfront investment. What the example of London’s sewer system shows is that designing for durability and the public’s welfare holds significant value. In one day alone, inadequate weatherization of Texas’ energy infrastructure easily cost taxpayers billions of dollars. Using innovation and thoughtful design, rigorously planned infrastructure built to withstand future climate scenarios saves money as well as lives.

The need to be proactive and creative in fortifying our built environment is gaining momentum in key regions throughout the country. Following Hurricane Sandy’s destructive impacts on 13 states along the eastern seaboard, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) launched a design competition, Rebuild by Design, to reconstruct and bring resilient design principles to areas that were badly hit by the 2012 superstorm.

The winning projects currently are in various stages of progress. Hoboken, N.J., for example, was awarded $230 million in 2018 to improve the resilience of coastal areas through a variety of measures from stormwater to flood control to multi-use recreational spaces. HUD awarded New York state $511 million in combination with other funding to rebuild 10 miles of coastline along Lower Manhattan. Resilient by Design, a similar design challenge launched in the San Francisco Bay area in 2017, is working with teams to preempt damage from future sea-level rise and coastal flooding.

Rebuild by Design works with communities around the United States and the world to bring resilience, holistic design and other public benefits to the built environment. These far-reaching projects represent deliberate efforts to bring a variety of stakeholders together to improve livability and quality of life, reduce a community’s vulnerabilities, and fortify its defenses to future climate change. These projects come at significant cost, but a wait-and-see approach is far costlier.

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About Chris Maeder

Chris Maeder, P.E., M.S., CFM, is engineering director at CivilGEO Inc.; email: [email protected].

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