During this menacing period of extreme weather and increased storm activity with destructive hurricanes and earthquakes, there are lessons we can apply, especially in key urban coastal regions.
FEMA Administrator Brock Long recently exclaimed that Hurricane Harvey provides a “wake-up call” and the records show that over the past 10 years disasters in the form of wildfires, flooding, droughts, and tornadoes have increased in frequency and intensity, with no end in sight.
Perhaps the disasters of 2017 portend disruptive events over the horizon, issuing a challenge for new thinking and innovative technologies? Here are some factors for our collective consideration:
1- Preparedness out-punches reactionary recovery in the fight against disasters. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, for ever dollar invested in resilience before a disaster, there is a four-dollar savings in the cost of recovery response in the wake of the crisis. While the community response to the storms are impressive; and the local, state, and federal governments are working well together, the investment in response and recovery needs to be refocused on anticipatory prevention, knowing this will happen again in the future.
For example, the greatest return on investment for the 23 oil refineries along the pivotal 21-mile stretch of the Houston Ship Channel is not just in restoring operations now to distribute fuel across the region, but in preventing, protecting, and mitigating the adverse impact of inevitable future flooding. Some 80-percent of the nation’s fuel pipelines originate in Houston and Texas City, so this is not just an issue for the local economy, but a strategic imperative for the country.
2- We live in a system of interconnected networks. Complex interdependent critical infrastructure is our greatest strength—and our greatest weakness. The global supply chain, our local economies, and flow of vital commodities depend upon the sustainability of electricity, communications, water, and transportation—the lifeline” critical infrastructures.
As we have seen in coastal urban areas, our major maritime ports connect intermodal systems to the vital industrial and economic arteries of the nation; and they are vulnerable to disruption in the face of extreme weather, flooding and especially storm surge. We must find ways to invest more effectively in proactive efforts (before the storm) in addition to emergency responses after the event has occurred, because shutting down the flow of goods, fuel, shipping, and freight mobility is harmful to the workforce, local economy, regional stability, and national security.
3- Strategic national security requirements are involved. All national security and market stability begins “at home” and the homeland depends on economic resilience. If the sine qua non-essential ingredient–of our society is a vibrant economy, then our maritime ports and shipping providers represent the vital ligaments of our national security and global influence.
Across the nation, we depend upon the continuous flow of domestic and international trade to and from our ports of entry. An average of 1,200 to 1,500 cargo vessels enter our 361 ports every day. This intersection of trade is the center-of-gravity for the nation’s exports and imports because strategic ports such as Miami, New York, Los Angeles, Baltimore, and Houston are moving goods every day and sustaining the US economy. We must ensure the intermodal transportation infrastructure of our ports is able to withstand and recover quickly from a disaster–the essence of resilience. When a major port closes (anywhere in the nation) the related economy stops, and when that happens, we are more vulnerable financially as well as from a security perspective.
4- Science and technology offer transformative solutions. Too often, we rely on 20th-century solutions to address 21st-century threats or opportunities. At the heart of our transportation infrastructure system is the ability to move people, freight, and utilities from sources to destinations and ensure access to homes and workplaces, especially during a natural or man-made disaster. One clear lesson that emerges from major disasters is that we are solely dependent upon our highways, runways, railways, ports and maritime waterways; and when they are flooded, closed, or congested, our communities, businesses, and personal lives are seriously impacted.
We need a bold new transportation innovation in the 21st century that will reinvent all-weather transportation and introduce intermodal systems across the country to resilient and clean transportation networks. For example, there is a new form of high-speed tube transportation called “hyperloop” which offers a breakthrough industry to significantly boost our quality of life and reprogram commuting time.
Hyperloop is a self-contained clean, fast, economical answer to vexing transportation challenges and offers an innovative solution to thinking–and acting differently–beyond the next severe flooding or disruptive crisis. For example, tube transportation could ensure sustained flow of cargo and commodities from offshore platforms to inland freight distribution centers, and reinforce existing conveyances by moving essential humanitarian aid and first responders after a storm passes. Further, the growing pressure on existing transportation systems due to port congestion and demands for greater access by deep-draft post-Panamax vessels could also be relieved by futuristic terminal infrastructure afforded by hyperloop technology. And it would complement and reinforce existing transportation systems.
Resilience raises the level of preparedness by strengthening our efforts before, during, and after the crisis. Hyperloop and tube transportation are relevant because it is a harbinger for the reinvention of transportation. The science, engineering, and technology are in place, but the political will, private investment, and public support will require more than a wake-up call to ensure we are poised to rebound and recover quickly after the next disaster.