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The Logic of More Spending on Disaster Prevention

Ilana Novick

If there is any silver lining to the mass destruction brought by Hurricane Sandy, it might be a renewed focus on the importance of infrastructure, and just how much our current systems -- of transit, energy, buildings, and much more -- are outdated and susceptible to another disaster. Government officials like New York's Governor Andrew Cuomo have spoken about the need for new protection, such as flood barriers. This is an important step, but is not a replacement for infrastructure upgrades that could stand up to the kind of harsh weather that America experiences more and more. Both the federal government and local governments must be willing to fund disaster prevention as easily as disaster relief. 

Governor Cuomo estimates that New York alone will likely need $42 billion to cover the costs of post-Sandy rebuilding. With the federal government still grappling with the deficit, it may seem like a bad time to ask. However, a study by the economist Andrew Healy and the political scientist Neil Malhotra showed that, between 1985 and 2004, the government spent annually, on average, fifteen times as much on disaster relief as on preparedness, and even less on the kind infrastructure repair that would aid prevention. 

Politically, its easier to sell the idea of immediate help, especially when it comes with graphic pictures of floating homes and downed trees. Compared with funding infrastructure upgrades that will prevent future, but still unknown disasters, disaster relief is certainly easier for both the public and congress to wrap their heads around. And the upgrades will certainly be expensive, not to mention complex. An urban planner and an engineer interviewed by the Atlantic Cities both stressed the importance of flexibility and redundancy in building new energy systems, for example, having back up systems, located underground that would kick in when other systems fail. The current system for Con Ed, a major utility in New York, currently requires any solar, fuel cell generator, or other independent power system on the grid to disconnect when the system fails. This is the opposite of the kind of electrical system that we need if we're going to survive another superstorm. 

Meanwhile, estimates for a New York seawall range from ten to twenty billion dollars. It's a high price tag, but not nearly as high as the hundreds of billions the federal government paid for reconstruction in New Orleans after Katrina. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that federal spending on levees pays for itself six times over, and studies of other flood-control measures in the developed world find benefit-to-cost ratios of three or four to one. The A.S.C.E. gave the United States' infrastructure a D in 2009. Flood control mechanisms would go a long way towards raising that grade. 

And, of course, new infrastructure spending is good for the economy. In our recent article on the importance of building a new Hudson River tunnel between New York and New Jersey, David Callahan pointed out that spending on infrastructure delivers more stimulus bang for the buck than most other forms of stimulus. Such spending directly creates jobs, providing work for variety of electricians, construction workers, and engineers, among many others.  

As once-in-a-hundred-year weather events hit us once every couple of years, prevention becomes more urgent than ever.