It was a balmy clear early summer day and the Johnston family were on the road trying to get to their vacation spot like thousands of others in California.  Two weeks at a beautiful resort on the ocean in Carmel, the yearly sojourn for the Johnston family.  But, for now, they were stuck on the SF Bay bridge with hundreds of others trying to get to the Pacific Coast Highway.

Mr. Johnston was the first to notice, a vibration under the car.  As he looked around, he realized he was about to experience every Bay Area resident’s worst nightmare, caught on the SF Bay Bridge in an earthquake.  The rumbling got louder and louder as the support structures of the bridge began to show the strain.  This was it, the Big Kahuna, The Whopper, an earthquake that would eventually be registered as an 8.5 magnitude on the richter scale on the San Andreas faultline.  The rumbling did not last longer than one and a half minutes but the devastation was almost incomprehensible.  Reports began pouring in from all over the region, homes destroyed, over passes down, freeway sections gone, sinkholes, and breeches on the Sacramento delta levees.  As the day went on there were rescue efforts everywhere as the residents tried to figure out what would happen next.  Of course, Californians are resilient people, rebuilding would take place and life would return back to normal, except for one little problem.  Those breeches in the levees?  They caused severe flooding but in time that could be fixed, what was awaiting California and the country as a result of those breeches would take years to repair because it was out of man’s hands.  The breeches in those levees had allowed water from the San Francisco Bay to flood the Delta.  The water resource for the entire state had been contaminated with salt water.  And THAT could have been prevented.

Infrastructure repair and rebuilding, the last thing the US wants to spend money on when it should be right up there with military spending.  Because the US and California put off doing today what can be done tomorrow, 45% of the nations’ fruits and vegetable is now gone and most of California’s water supply – contaminated.  Oh, the levees would be rebuilt but it would take years for the water supply to cleanse itself of the salt contanimation.  All because this country repaired, not replaced, levees that were over 100 years old, levees that were built in the beginning of the 20th century.  You see the Sacramento Delta system of waterways supply the majority of California’s water supply.  There are dams and resevoirs around the state but the resevoirs are for drinking water and in a perfect world should only be used as a backup to the main water supply.  And in an earthquake of that magnitude how many dams might rupture?

Everyone knows how much the US spends on defense and it is obscene compared to the amount we spend on our own infrastructure.  Katrina was a warning to the US, look at your infrastructure, where might there be other areas that could produce similar destruction?  How soon can the US start these projects?  But another disaster of similar or greater magnitudes are waiting to happen all over this county.  It is impossible to quantify the amount of lives and money that would be saved because natural disasters are not predictible, however the longevity of a structure is cerainly predictible, costs and inspections during the building phase are certainly within man’s ability to handle, as are inspection processes during the life of a structure.  The problem is that there is no will to fund those projects beyond the bare minimum because our leaders have become so focused on what happens abroad that they have taken their eyes off the ball and what can happen here.  It is a “deal with the fallout” mentality rather than a proactive mentality.  A disaster like the one above could end up costing this state and the country well over 400 billion a year until the water levels and quality is restored giving a stark meaning to the term who can put a dollar figure on good clean drinking water?

In the 50’s President Eisenhower funded the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, commonly called the Interstate Highway System or Interstate Freeway System, and colloquially abbreviated “the Interstate“. This freeway system serves nearly all major U.S. cities, with many Interstates passing through downtown areas. The distribution of virtually all goods and services involves Interstate Highways at some point.  At the time this system was being built, it was considered to be the greatest undertaking of any country in the world to connect it’s citizens.  You would think with the amount of time and money this country spent to build the system, they would take care to insure it remained a wonder to behold.  But politicians, presidents, governors and voters soon have other things to worry about and infrastructure is certainly not glamorous.  It’s benefits are not always visible, except in the abstract because when you sit down and really think about the value of our infrastructure you realize this country could not operate without it.

We have dams, sewer systems, bridges, roads, levees, man-made waterways, rails, electrical grids all rapidly aging.  And as our highway system was given a “defense” purpose, all of our infrastructure contributes to the defense and security of this country.  We spend billions fighting the terrorists “over there” when we could use that money to build up our infrastructure and in the process strengthen our defenses against a terrorist attack.  If there were a biological attack, say letting loose a biological strain of the bubonic and pneumonic plague, our current healthcare system is not prepared to manage the outcome.  In the US the following are statisitics for our ability to respond timely to a biological attack:

1/2 of States do not have national standards to track disease outbreak info

Only 7 states and 2 cities are adequately prepared to administer and distribute vaccines or anti-dotes

1/3 of states and DC  are not prepared for surge of patients by using non health facilities

Hospitals in only 2 states have sufficient plans to encourage healthcare workers to work during a crisis

Hospitals in nearly 1/3 of states lack sufficient capability to consistantly consult with Infectious Control experts about possible or suspicious disease outbreaks

Hospitals in nearly 1/3 of states have not planned for distribution of vaccines or anti-viral medication to hospital workers

Hospitals in more than 40% of states do not have sufficient backup supplies of medical equipment to meet surge capacity needs during a pandemic flu or other serious outbreaks

For profit hospitals are run as “just in time” operations, meaning they have supplies for maybe a week at normal capacity

And this is just one section of an emergency responder scenario we would face in the event of an attack.  There are many more examples of how the United States is falling short in maintaining our infrastructure, bridges in Minnesota, levees in Louisiana, dams in Iowa, sewer systems in upstate New York.  We saw the horror of the levees in Louisiana in 2005 and still we bury our heads in the sand regarding our failing infrastructure.  The bridge in Minnesota that failed did so despite a 1990 report by the United States government that gave the bridge a rating of “structurally deficient” yet MN DOT and the US Government continued to allow citizens to cross that bridge.

Yet still we fight the terrorists over there knowing very well that they have no alternative to our military power.  Taking the battle to them is not achieving the intended results, it only breeds more terrorists.  Our chances of eradicating terrorism in the world are about as good eradicating the seasonal flu.  And because we are so busy trying to run down terrorists, we spend no time reinforcing our infrastructure in order to mount a successful response to an attack here on American soil.  New Orleans was no mistake, it was a direct result of our inability to respond to a crisis.  On 9/11 so many were killed that we did not have a true test of our hospital systems but a pneumonic and bubonic plague simulation was done in New Jersey in April 2005 and the state failed miserably.

In the end, building a resilient society is not about caving into our fears.  Instead is is about inventorying what is truly precious and ensuring its durability so that we can remain true to our ideals no matter what tempest the future may bring.  We are worth it, I hope our government figures this out before it is truly too late.

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Great article, Sue – it’s a problem of long standing, and, of course the longer the standing, the worse it gets. As an historian who documented some of the historic infrastructre in the East, I became aware of how long “deferred maintenance” actually WAS deferred.

CA’s problems are compounded by the state’s other long-term history: voting on bonds and projects for which the state then has no funding stream. I read one “thinker” (Glenn Beck’s self designation) who cheered, “Yes! Let’s issues bonds and make the REST of America pay for our infrastructure! Why should WE pay for it?” This was not sarcastic but intended. He had no idea if you issue bonds, you have to PAY the bondholders back with interest. So we continue to have a “something for nothing” way of doing business we cannot sustain. We no longer can issues the bonds voters authorized since our state credit rating makes them totally unattractive.

The other side is the absolute lack of clarity about what is needed. The proposed 2012 $11 billion water bond DUPLICATES at least $3 billion we already voted in and have not yet spent. No one can explain exactly what it is to do. There is no existing survey of need – who, exactly, has contaminated water, and why is it contaminated? If it’s agricultural or industrial run-off polluting ground water then where is the corporate liability for clean up? (We are not talking Mom and Pop farms here.) When we do issue contracts such as the I-5 repair running through Sacramento, we celebrate “free enterprise” efficiency in doing it so fast – despite the fact that Cal-Trans is forbidden to close major roads and work 8 hours at night while the private sector guy gets to shut down the highway. And then – the “repair” did not entirely work. Where is the accountability? Same contractor “repaired” part of the Bay Bridge only to have the replaced multi-ton joint come crashing down on a passing car, narrowly missing massive injury or death to the driver.

So even our fixes don’t fix stuff.

The proposal for high speed rail troubles me since there is still a massive clamor for saving money. How? Imported steel rails for one thing. Chinese steel is too often of poor quality. There is a push for speed and low cost that we have seen produce deadly results in consumer items – what will happen to rails produced under similar pressures?

Sue has put her finger on a terrible disaster in the making, something that affects all of us. By deferring construction and repair, we have saved nothing. Back in the early ’80s a section of I-95 over the Connecticut River collapsed killing several motorists whose cars plunged into the water. And identically-constructed section is the main crossover the Blackstone River in Pawtucket, RI. They fixed the CT span – but in 2009 they FINALLY decided to deal with the RI span. How? By warning travelers NOT to cross it. They could not afford the repair, so they diverted traffic. A quarter century, and no one could prevent this. Oh, they DID invest in large electronic signs warning drivers for 20 miles before the diversion. I guess that’s something.

Thank you for this Sue. This is a major wake up call for the nation, and we appreciate your focus and warning to us all! We will all be watching where and how we go a bit more closely, thanks to you!


Terrific article, Sue.

This part of my state had quite a lot of shovel-ready projects in the pipeline (mostly because the area had been falling apart for a while), when the stimulus funds became available. So there’s been a lot of infrastructure repair undertaken — roads, bridges, sewers, etc.

Initially these projects had signs posted near them: “Part of the American Reconstruction and Rebuilding Act” or something like that. I noticed after the 2010 elections and our Repub governor came into office, they disappeared. But I hope that people remember that the little bit of progress that we have achieved in this area is due largely to the Obama administration!

As you demonstrated so well, we have a long way to go still.


Excellent article and very thought provoking!

I live in LA and am embarrassed to say that I didn’t know about how profound the effect of the levee breaches was on the Delta water supply.

You make a very powerful point, if our government’s focus is on the most sensational aspects of protecting the nation, on external threats because those are the most widely feared by the public and politically beneficial to politicians, then we are on a long term course of intentionally destroying our own country through neglect.

It’s like a father protecting his children by standing guard outside their house with a shotgun…while they slowly starve to death inside.

I have pondered from time to time how easy it would actually be for a small amount of people to cause an enormous amount of destruction across the nation in a short span of time, purely by taking advantage of the opportunities that neglect has created.

And of course, the irony of destroying our country’s economy and democracy in the pursuit of protecting it.

There is no question to a reasonable observer, in fact, even the unreasonable Tea Partiers have finally conceded this, our military spending needs to be drastically cut and money redirected to rebuilding this nation.

The percentage of budget spending on the military is unprecedented, paying for two wars at the same time (semantics aside, we are still pouring billions each month into Iraq and of course Afghanistan) and all of the corruption, war profiteering and pork spending on things the military doesn’t even want.

Not to mention how jobs, wages and economic recovery would flourish if a huge portion of military spending was re-directed to infrastructure repair and construction.

How can America be competitive in the world as the years go by if our infrastructure is crumbling?

Let alone all of the scenarios that lay out there as possibilities in the face of major natural disasters. How many cities are we willing to lose in the name of protecting them from attacks by 100 Al Qaeda in Afghanistan?

I agree completely with you, our country needs to pull in its horns in a huge way from wars of choice and military spending and pour those resources into literally strengthening our nation.

The truth is, the weaker we become internally, the more we’ll depend on protection from external forces. The stronger we are internally, the stronger and more resilient we can be in the face of any external or internal force.

This seems so simple, people would always choose to make their home safe and make sure their kids were fed over neglecting them to stand guard outside against any threats. And it’s not an either/or situation, we can invest in America while funding a military that uses intelligence to protect us and force when necessary.

Perhaps the economic state we find ourselves in will force the pendulum to swing more in this direction, I hope so.