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Resilience6 rules for rebuilding infrastructure in an era of “unprecedented” weather events

By Thaddeus R. Miller and Mikhail Chester

Published 8 September 2017

Before Hurricane Harvey made landfall on 25 August, there was little doubt that its impact would be devastating and wide-ranging. Unfortunately, Harvey delivered and then some with early estimates of the damage at over $190 billion, which would make it the costliest storm in U.S. history. As the Houston region turns its attention to rebuilding and other cities consider ramping up efforts to make their infrastructure more resilient, it is the complicated story behind the devastation in Houston – a story involving decades of land use planning and poor urban design that has generated impervious surfaces at a fantastic pace – 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.

Before Hurricane Harvey made landfall on 25 August, there was little doubt that its impact would be devastating and wide-ranging.

Unfortunately, Harvey delivered and then some with early estimates of the damage at over $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on the Houston area by Harvey has been called “unprecedented,” making engineering and floodplain design standards look outdated at best and irresponsible at worst.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.

We draw from our research as a social scientist and an engineer and from our experience helping to lead the Urban Resilience to Extreme Weather Events Sustainability Research Network (funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation). Here are six rules for investing in infrastructure for the twenty-firstst 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 twentieth century, we will no longer serve society and the hazards we will encounter now and in the future.

A strong foundation
Proactive maintenance first. In 2017, U.S. infrastructure was given a D+ by the American Society for Civil Engineering Infrastructure Report Card. The bill to repair all those deteriorating roads, bridges and dams would tally $210 billion by 2020, and $520 billion in 2040. For example, the US Army Corps of Engineers estimates there are 15,460 dams in the U.S. with “high” hazard ratings.