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Silver Lining in Bad Weather

Expert views weather assaults as natural tests of nation’s infrastructure

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August 10, 2012 | by Megan Fellman

EVANSTON, Ill. --- The weather extremes of the past few years -- excessive heat, flooding, unexpected snowstorms, fierce or misplaced hurricanes -- are nature’s way of testing the resistance and resilience of our nation’s infrastructure, including transit systems, says Northwestern University transportation and infrastructure expert Joseph Schofer.

“If there is any good news in these repeated assaults, we can view them as experiments -- of a type we would never intentionally conduct ourselves -- to find the vulnerabilities in our infrastructure, including roads, bridges, transit systems, water supply and recovery systems, homes and buildings,” says Schofer, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science and director of the Infrastructure Technology Institute.

Schofer points to the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) as an agency that learned a lesson about large and severe weather events -- from Hurricane Katrina and a local blizzard in December 2010. “The New York leadership paid attention,” Schofer says.

In a detailed case study completed earlier this year, Schofer and colleagues note how the MTA made a choice. After Katrina and the blizzard, the MTA established -- for the first time -- a set of criteria to determine under what conditions they would shut down the transit system, to protect people and property. When Hurricane Irene threatened New York last August, the MTA used the new criteria to shut down the entire transit system hours ahead of the storm.

This summer, extreme heat across the country is buckling highways, causing moveable bridges to get stuck, derailing trains and causing people and businesses to dramatically increase electricity use. There are lessons in each case.

“We need to rethink how we protect infrastructure,” says Schofer, who hosts a monthly podcast on issues related to the nation’s infrastructure. “And the risk of injury or death is changing with the increase in extreme weather. We are looking at a moving target.”

When infrastructure fails a test -- completely in some cases, partially in others -- leaders, managers and engineers are presented with the opportunity simply to rebuild or to invest in greater resilience so our systems can withstand the next event without interruption and with little or no damage.

“Of course, the smart way is to build in that resilience, which usually will cost us less in the long run,” Schofer says. “If we merely rebuild the same facility after a disaster, we probably have failed to learn nature’s lessons.”

Episodes of “The Infrastructure Show” can be found online