Shortchanging America’s Infrastructure: What Katrina Revealed

05/25/2011 11:45 am ET
  • Robert Hormats Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment

Among the sorry realities revealed by of the tragedy on the Gulf Coast is that this nation has neglected its public infrastructure — not just in New Orleans but in many other parts of the country as well. That has rendered us more vulnerable not only to violent acts of nature but to also to violent acts of man -- terrorists intent on killing Americans and damaging our economy.

Imagine a group of terrorists observing the vulnerability of New Orleans and the sadly inadequate response — and feeling even more emboldened to commit some heinous act of their own.

The years of neglect of the region's levees — and generally of America’s public infrastructure — is not the result of scarce government resources. We had big budget surpluses just a few years ago. Rather, it is the result of insufficient attention and misplaced spending priorities.

Washington has had the money to address our nation’s infrastructure vulnerabilities. It certainly had enough for hefty tax cuts and big domestic spending bills, with large sums spent on projects and programs that were popular with influential constituencies but of relatively low national priority. However, it shortchanged vulnerable areas, such as the Gulf Coast. And significant numbers of important projects continue to receive insufficient funding. The Army Corps of Engineers has a $1 billion backlog in deferred maintenance. Postponing needed improvements might save money in the near term, but it costs a lot more in the long term. The enormous bill for repairs and reconstruction in New Orleans and other parts of the Gulf Coast will be proof enough of that.

And additional vulnerability exists in key areas of our nation's transportation, public transit, communication, energy and drinking water infrastructures. The American Society of Civil Engineers recently issued a report card on America’s Infrastructure and gave it a resounding D!

Neglect of America’s infrastructure would be bad enough in normal times. It is even more dangerous at a time when the country is at war with global terrorism. Experts such as Steve Flynn, of the Council on Foreign Relations, have been warning of this for several years.

Vulnerable transportation facilities offer terrorists a range of rich targets. Knocking out a major harbor with a small nuclear device would, as we have seen, damage not only the immediate area but also back up trains, ships and trucks over thousands of miles, disrupting agricultural shipments, component deliveries and energy flows throughout wide swaths of the country. In a world of just in time inventories, that can paralyze large portions of the nation's supply and production chain, cause factories to close and cost tens of thousands of jobs.

While many seaports, bridges, tunnels, water systems and rail stations are locally run, the impact of a weather or terrorist related disruption is anything but a local problem. As we have observed, destruction of a key harbor, or shipping channel, for instance, produces severe regional and national reverberations. The 10 day shutdown of the West Coast Docks in 2002 not only affected the Coastal states; many others also suffered. It cost the US economy over $1 billion a day. That is why local or regional vulnerabilities require a national response.

Throughout American history, we have revised our nation’s economic priorities when we have faced threats to our security. Government spending has been cut for low priority programs and channeled into those of high security priority. Taxes have been increased to provide resources to protect our security. Narrow interests have given way to national interests. Business was asked to do its share, even if that cut profits in the short term.

The tragedy in the Gulf is a sad reminder that we urgently need to do more to protect our infrastructure against natural and manmade dangers. And we will likely need to alter our spending priorities and our tax priorities to do this, in the American tradition of putting security above self interest.

All this should have happened several years ago, especially after 9/11. It did not. We need to make sure to do it now.

It is fine to appoint a Commission to determine what went wrong in responding to the tragedy on the Gulf Coast. But it is just as important to recognize that there are broader lessons to be drawn about the condition of the entire nation’s infrastructure. The overriding goal should be to prevent future natural and man made disasters of the kind we have just witnessed in any part of our country.

To undertake that review, the President should appoint a bipartisan government- private sector Commission on National Infrastructure Security, to report to him and to the Congress by the end of the year. (Most of the information is already available, so it can be done quickly.) It should determine the most urgent national requirements for capital improvements, repair and maintenance. Congressional committees also should hold hearings throughout the country to assess first hand the risks and degree of urgency. Then we can prioritize our needs and decide how to pay for needed improvements.

If we fail to heed this wake up call, something similar will almost assuredly happen again somewhere else — and the nation’s tragedy and shame will be all the greater.