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Infrastructure Cuts Would Make the Unthinkable Unsurvivable

Closed bridge at Cameron, Arizona. (Photo: frankhg)

Infrastructure Cuts Would Make the Unthinkable Unsurvivable

Closed bridge at Cameron, Arizona. (Photo: frankhg)

It's no secret that the nation's infrastructure is in dire shape. Last year, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave US infrastructure a “D” rating and specifically bridges a “C,” an average grade that might thrill mediocre students, but in this case means 12 percent of the more than 72,000 bridges in the country are too old or “structurally deficient.” Additionally, according to the Association of State Dam Safety Officials, 4,400 dams are considered susceptible to failure.

Despite ominous warnings from the country's engineers, infrastructure remains a thoroughly unsexy issue that causes people to nod off. Transportation networks and buildings are things we take for granted – structures that have always and will always be there. It isn't until infrastructure fails that we understand they are magnificent feats and begin to appreciate how much human effort it takes to maintain an acceptable level of safety during our daily commutes.

The aftermath of the Japan earthquake conveys two tales: the nuclear infrastructure and also the story of the country's roads, bridges and buildings. One story has an abysmal ending, the other relatively successful. Despite the failure in Fukushima where reactors were built on an expectation that a 7.9 quake would be the maximum any plant in the area would ever experience – and apparently didn't account for the likelihood of an auxiliary tsunami – it appears as though Japan's overall infrastructure is holding together.

It should be emphasized that the over 10,000 missing people, deaths of thousands (and counting,) radiation exposure, over 100 crippled trains and the obliteration of entire towns all occurred in a rich nation best prepared for earthquakes. Japanese citizens participate in earthquake drills from early childhood, and buildings must adhere to the strictest of regulation codes. Structures are even made “earthquake proof” with deep foundations and shock absorbers designed to withstand seismic waves.

Conversely, Americans are woefully unprepared to deal with quakes. “Americans are not adequately prepared,” says Yumei Wang, a geotechnical engineer in Oregon. “The Japanese have the most advanced preparations in the world.” However, the biggest problem isn't that Americans are underprepared for a massive quake – it's that their infrastructure isn't ready.

Certain groups like the conservative Heritage Foundation have seized on this moment to accuse Japan's investment in infrastructure of somehow having failed because many roads and Fukushima's nuclear facilities could not withstand a massive quake and tsunami. Such criticisms are silly, namely because very few structures on earth could withstand the impact of a 9.0-magnitude quake and subsequent massive wave, but that's no reason to forego regulation like Japan's rigorous safety standards that saved even more citizens from being killed by collapsing roads and buildings.

By and large, [Japan's buildings] passed the grade. Those who were in Tokyo describe seeing skyscrapers sway and spin, some at an angle of 20 degrees; others inside the scrapers said they pitched and rolled as if they were on the deck of a ship at sea. But the buildings did not fall.

Of course, “Building Doesn't Collapse” isn't a lead CNN is likely to run with anytime soon.

Like Japan, California has very strict building codes that have been in place since the 1933 Long Beach quake that destroyed almost all of the reinforced masonry buildings, but even California's stringent guidelines don't match the seriousness of Japan's codes. For example, in 1971, California's high overpasses, where the 5 and 14 freeways meet, collapsed and the cross-section's replacement also fell in a 1994 quake. These kinds of events (caused by 6.6- and 6.7-magnitude quakes, respectively) are horrific enough without adding the element of radiation leakage.

There are 104 nuclear power reactors in the country with permits pending for 20 more (13 states share the same Japanese containment system). Within the hotbed of earthquake activity in California, there are two nuclear power plants. The owner of San Onofre nuclear plant says there's no cause for concern, but his reasoning sounds eerily familiar. “The science says that we could see about five miles from the plant an earthquake, perhaps equal to a magnitude 6.5, 6.6,” Gil Alexander of Southern California Edison told “CBS News.” “So we designed the plant to exceed the maximum threat. It's designed to withstand a 7.0.” [Emphasis added.]

But what happens when the Big One hits? The Pacific Northwest is “overdue [for a major quake],” warns geotechnical engineer Wang of the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries. Studies indicate a 7.8 magnitude earthquake in California could kill 1,800 people and destroy 300,000 structures. In 2008, the official earthquake forecast, known as the Uniform California Earthquake Rupture Forecast (UCERF,) predicted California has more than a 99% chance of having a magnitude 6.7 or larger earthquake within the next 30 years and a 46% chance of getting hit with a quake of magnitude 7.5 or greater in the same time span. Alexander would have been better off saying: We're about half sure these plants will still be here in the next few decades.

Oregon's Senate President Peter Courtney says his state is not prepared for a Japanese-style quake. “The whole valley will shut down. You'll lose bridges. You'll lose buildings. You won't be able to get people in and out of health facilities, hospitals. If it's during the daytime and kids are in school, including Oregon State, Lord knows the number of people who are going to be injured or killed. The magnitude of this is beyond description. We are not prepared,” he says.

In 2007 the state released a report on the need for seismic retrofitting in Oregon. James Roddey of Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries says it wasn't optimistic.

James Roddey: “Half of all of the schools in the state were at high, or very high risk of collapse and to a much lesser degree the police stations and fire stations were at risk.”

So that's about 1,500 school buildings at risk.

Roddey hopes to have all of Oregon's schools, fire stations and police stations retrofitted … in 25 years.

As the country's networks of roads and bridges age, America is simultaneously experiencing a harsh era of austerity. Meanwhile, the president has called for the country to “live within its means” at the same time he proposes investing in infrastructure. President Obama proposed $50 billion to upgrade national infrastructure and yet he brags about meeting Republicans “halfway” on proposed budget cuts – cuts that will make his kind of vision for growth impossible.

The president appears prepared to humor the GOP's dystopian vision for the future even though a dollar “saved” on not maintaining or updating infrastructure is actually a dollar wasted. As The Washington Post reports, “it's cheaper to strengthen a bridge that's standing than repair one that's fallen down.”

Rep. Jerry Costello (D-Illinois) echoes that sentiment in The Hill:

[I]t is estimated that every $1 billion invested in national infrastructure creates 35,000 jobs and generates $6.1 billion in economic activity.

The fiscally responsible thing to do in this case is invest in infrastructure. Yet, the cacophony for cuts has reached such a frenzied level that Sen. John Kerry was recently forced to bypass the austerity craze with a proposal for legislation to create an infrastructure bank that would provide loans for large building projects. The I-bank is designed to skirt Washington's paralysis in order to return to a time when Americans built things.

Budget cuts are normally already painful for poor and vulnerable Americans, but infrastructure austerity thrusts ascetic measures onto massive structures that support, carry and contain millions of Americans every day. These decaying giants surround us, and it's the duty of the government to maintain and improve such structures.

One of President Obama's stock lines on the campaign trail was his supposed refusal to “kick the can down the road,” but by refusing to care for the nation's infrastructure, that's precisely what he's doing. Particularly, the Obama administration leaves the country vulnerable to catastrophe in the event of a Japanese-level quake.

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