The snow and ice that unleashed a cascading set of power and water outages in Texas and surrounding states was a natural event.
The disaster that has since unfolded is anything but natural. Horrifying reports from cities like Jackson, Miss., whose residents are still without potable water weeks after the storm, are a direct consequence of our decades-long failure to maintain and upgrade our essential infrastructure systems.
Lots of media attention over the last few weeks has focused on the Texas power grid and energy system, but these technology failures are a symptom of a larger problem: as a nation we are terrible at investing in protection and prevention. This is partly a government funding problem, but it is not only about more money or fancier technology. Our governments need to manage risk better.
Resilience — the capacity of systems to withstand and quickly recover from predictable, if rare, shocks and stresses — is easily identified in its absence, but much more difficult to make a political case for in advance. Public budgeting and procurement processes — how we buy everything from pencils to power lines — are often driven by public and private sector leaders alike seeking the lowest up-front cost solutions. This puts long-term investments at a disadvantage, even when the benefits are clear. Without new incentives and funding sources to protect critical infrastructure and services, the default will be to prioritize short-term cost savings, efficiency and just-in-time-delivery in ways that make our nation as a whole increasingly fragile.
The good news is that there are some basic steps that the federal government can take to support state and local governments and ensure that the suffering in Texas and neighboring states is not only the most recent news story of a costly and avoidable disaster.
First, federal agencies need dedicated funding sources to encourage better infrastructure predevelopment. This includes all of the design, engineering and planning that needs to happen before construction. Although disasters often reveal where infrastructure systems are in greatest need of investment, we need to know what the best options are for upgrading assets before a catastrophe. Designing complex infrastructure takes time. Relying on disaster recovery funding and quick fixes in the aftermath of disasters makes it far more likely that a city or a utility will default to replacing what was there rather than building what is needed most for the future.
Second, local governments and public utilities need support to deal with crushing deferred maintenance backlogs and legacy infrastructure systems. The residents of Jackson are suffering not only because of a winter storm, but also because of years of water system decay and neglect. This type of inaction has consequences well beyond the directly affected communities. Federal and state agencies also face major risks and budget liabilities. Looking for these escalating fiscal risks can help identify cost-saving opportunities and drive additional investment to the places that need it most.
Third, we need comprehensive emergency management reform and formal, funded channels to bring federal, state and local emergency managers and resilience experts into infrastructure planning processes. It is common to hear that a severe weather event was unprecedented or impossible to anticipate. This is rarely true. Scientists and emergency managers have warned of nearly every type of catastrophe we have experienced in recent decades from winter storms to wildfires and even pandemics. We need better ways of heeding these warnings and translating them into infrastructure investments that will serve us well in an increasingly volatile and uncertain future.
Fourth, we have to develop new public-private partnerships to address our most pressing infrastructure challenges. In a 2010 report, the National Infrastructure Advisory Council emphasized that better public-private partnership “represents the best long-term strategy to secure our critical infrastructures.” Winter storms are far from the only problem facing Texas or the nation. The cascading crises that unfolded last month made abundantly clear that energy sector disruptions in Texas have national consequences and costs. Major projects such as the Coastal Spine or “Ike Dike,” designed to protect Gulf Coast communities and industries from hurricanes, also have national economic benefits. Congress needs to prioritize funding for these kinds of large-scale projects and networks, like the power grid, where the cost burdens are local but the benefits are much broader.
Finally, the White House should create a new and nimble unit dedicated to identifying the federal fiscal impacts of increasingly frequent and severe events and developing strategic intra-agency and cross-agency solutions. We cannot rely on existing infrastructure funding silos and channels to solve multi-sector problems — across water, energy, transportation and other systems. Nor can we count on big legislative fixes that will take years to implement.
National media attention on last month’s winter storm has already started to fade, but the crisis for many communities is far from over. It is unacceptable to leave people living in mold-ridden homes awaiting the design of better large-scale infrastructure. Having a dedicated team of resilience problem-solvers and trouble-shooters can help federal agencies and states spot potential failures ahead of time, reduce risk, create cost savings and sustain attention beyond the most recent disaster to address long-term challenges in our built environment.
Storms are inevitable, but they don’t need to become disasters. We all deserve better protection from the things we know are coming.
Shalini Vajjhala is the founder and CEO of re:focus partners, a firm that designs resilience solutions, and a non-resident senior fellow with The Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program.