As we write this, Hurricane Maria has just recently thrashed Puerto Rico and the Caribbean as one of the strongest storms ever recorded in the Atlantic. And to make matters worse, it comes on the heels of Hurricane Harvey dumping 11 trillion gallons of water on Texas’ Gulf Coast, and Hurricane Irma bringing catastrophic flooding and life-threatening winds that devastated substantial portions of Florida, including areas as geographically apart as the Keys and Jacksonville.
Welcome to the new normal. With this new reality comes a responsibility to our current and future generations to abandon the endless damage-then-repair cycle and embrace a new culture of natural event mitigation. Make no mistake, the escalating costs of recovery are not sustainable over the long term. Damages from Irma and Harvey are expected to exceed $150 billion, while the estimates from Maria have not yet been tallied.
The stakes are clear: Prepare our nation’s populace and infrastructure for the worst, or continue to bear the human and monetary costs of these disasters for decades. This is not a scientific debate nor a multiple-choice question. This is the reality we face.
Preparing our national infrastructure for events we hope will never happen is nothing new. Much of our national roadway infrastructure dates back to the Eisenhower administration, and the program designed to build the “National System of Interstate and Defense Highways” – what we call the Interstate System today. Bridges on the system were designed and built to a height over the roadway that would allow an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile of the era – boxed and on the bed of an 18-wheel truck – to pass beneath.
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Simply put, an example of hoping for the best while preparing for the worst. Following our recent experiences with Katrina, Sandy, Harvey and Irma in coastal areas, and tornados, flooding and fires in inland areas, there are many requirements that can be put in place to ensure our cities and communities are prepared.
In our vulnerable coastal areas, new and rebuilt homes, businesses and transportation systems must be elevated, enhanced or otherwise created as resilient structures, while public and private electrical infrastructure in coastal areas must be elevated to points above ground. Gas stations need to have back-up generators, and key elements of the grid need to be buried inland to protect from external damage. We need temporary “plugs” for key tunnels, and plans in place to quickly move key transportation rolling stock out of harm’s way.
Our vulnerable coastal, tidal and non-tidal wetlands must be safeguarded with various protective measures. State and local governments must require that public and private facilities in vulnerable areas cater to the elderly and ensure that viable – and tested – event mitigation plans are ready to implement.
Lastly, our country needs an enhanced National Storm Reserve, pre-positioned with large stocks of food and water in key areas around the nation that are ready to move at a moment’s notice. We already do this with gasoline and our Strategic Petroleum Reserve.
These are only a few examples. As the Administration and Congress look to enact a new long-term infrastructure plan, they should keep these needs in mind. While public-private partnerships can enhance this work, as well as provide some funding for it, there is no avoiding the fact that substantial revenues will have to be raised to pay for this.
When it comes to transportation infrastructure, a hike in the national gasoline tax, not raised since 1993, would be one way to provide significant revenue. Another choice could include a carbon tax, with revenues wholly or partially dedicated to disaster preparation.
Regardless of the course we choose financially, the bottom line is, Americans are recognizing the new normal and will demand significant natural disaster mitigation efforts going forward. As Americans, we always do our part – from an improvised “Cajun Navy” in Texas to offering time and resources to help communities across the country.
Now, it is time for government and industry to do their part. It is up to both the public and private sectors to provide the tools – and funding – for these mitigation efforts.
Edward G. Rendell is a former governor of Pennsylvania and mayor of Philadelphia. He is the current co-chair of the bipartisan advocacy group Building America’s Future.
James Lee Witt is a former White House Cabinet member and director of FEMA.