The formula for surviving hurricanes and other weather disasters is part preparation and part recovery. The more effort and resources we invest in the former, the more success we can expect with the latter.
That’s especially important to consider now that the nation’s infrastructure needs become more urgent.
Extreme weather events disrupt our lives in vast and lasting ways, and the impact on our transportation system is crippling when torrential flooding renders our physical foundation overwhelmed and unusable for extended periods.
Just consider Tropical Storm Nicholas, which pounded parts of southeast Texas and southwest Louisiana with close to 20 inches of rain, causing widespread flooding and threatening roadway stability.
The current hurricane season is near its end, and we don’t yet know what the last several weeks will bring. But we do know this: Weather disasters are becoming more frequent, more severe and more expensive.
Between 1980 and 2020, the United States was hammered by nearly 300 weather disasters that caused more than $1 billion in losses. Hurricane Harvey, the last major storm to hit Texas in 2017, was the costliest in history.
Transportation systems customarily have been designed to withstand historical ranges of extreme weather and climate, but documented increases in storm frequency, and often severity, make archival records a feeble predictor of future risk.
We typically respond to weather disasters reactively, relying upon established rehabilitation and repair practices to return service to pre-storm levels.
For a time, that approach worked well enough, but it no longer makes sense. What we need now is to make our infrastructure more resilient — better able to withstand and bounce back from massive and devastating natural forces.
Research done by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute identified several potential mitigation measures.
- Thinner pavements are particularly vulnerable to floods when they occur, and they represent a large share of many cities’ road networks. Hardening them would be expensive, but it’s necessary to make roads more resilient.
- Adequate drainage is critical. Increasing the size of culverts and ensuring proper maintenance would improve resiliency. But stormwater management systems need to be developed, too. That’s because stormwater is a lot like traffic; fixing a bottleneck in one location can create problems downstream.
- Elevating roads would help, but that’s very expensive. The cost of elevating roads or hardening redundant roads should, however, be balanced against the cost imposed by the risk of future flooding events.
Any severe storm can debilitate our transportation system and, by extension, our economy and our very existence. Increasingly frequent and severe storms leave behind devastation with massive financial costs associated with loss of service, repair and recovery.
We should weigh those costs in the same way we do when we consider how we maintain our cars. Some of us might remember the 1970s television advertisement for oil filters. As the mechanic in the ad said, “You can pay me now, or you can pay me later.” The same admonition applies to our infrastructure.
Jolanda Prozzi is a senior research scientist at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.
This article was originally published in the Galveston County–The Daily News, November 9, 2021.