It’s clear now that deferred maintenance of infrastructure is going to be a contributing factor to a hefty price tag following Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. There aren’t any models yet to predict exactly how far maintenance can lapse before a particular system will fail–these are dynamic systems of technologies, geographies, and climate. And, of course, even if economists could show a “deferred maintenance multiplier” number to policy makers, we have no evidence they could do much about it–state and federal budgets have been contracting on infrastructure for so long that it just seems like the way things have always been. Maintenance runs against the grain of “resilience” planning or “innovation”–it is patient, often carried out by non-flashy technical experts, and when it works we never notice. New research on this topic (from Andy Russell and Lee Vinsel to name two leading scholars) is making some headway, and is essential to the disaster relief debate.
Predicting the weakest links in a deferred maintenance ecology has proven difficult for engineers and planners because, well, the overall condition of American infrastructure earns a consistently poor grade from the American Society of Civil Engineers. You can see they most recently rated Florida and Texas the same with a gentleman’s C.
Following Hurricane Sandy, a major sticking point in the political debates over the major relief bill (PL 113-2) had to do with the costs of infrastructure repair–not cheap for a region of the United States with a complex (and too-long neglected) transportation network. Politicians like Ted Cruz of Texas called this kind of spending “pork”–unrelated to “the disaster.” This argument didn’t fall on deaf ears in his caucus, and we will have to see in the weeks to come if it is revived. If you believe that infrastructure spending should not be part of disaster relief, then you have to take a serious approach to meeting the maintenance demands of this vital aspect of American public safety, and the American economy.
There’s more on this in an essay I published in Technology’s Stories in 2016. It dives a bit deeper into the politics of the Sandy debate. #slowdisaster