Infrastructure: 100 years old and counting

See below for updated information in light of late February, 2010 blizzard in Northeast.

Ninety-six years ago, in Cleveland, Ohio, the Great Lakes Storm of November 1913 paralyzed the city. My mother was born during that storm.  On that day, my grandfather carried my pregnant grandmother in his arms to the hospital because no buses, no streetcars, nor horse and buggies could travel through Cleveland’s snow-packed streets.

Last year, on my mother’s birthday, we looked at an archival photo from the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s November 13, 1913 edition. The photo shows streets blocked by drifts of snow and the above-ground, wooden electrical poles pushed over and fallen, with their wires twisted and disconnected.

Those electric and telephone poles were part of the infrastructure for an electrical delivery system that is nearly unchanged to this day.  That infrastructure was modern for its time, but dangerously outdated today. Incredibly, almost a century later, the infrastructure where I now live—just a two-and-a-half hour drive from the epicenter of the world’s twenty-first century financial markets in New York City—could be in that photo from nearly a century ago.

The above-ground poles in front of my home are as prone to the vagaries of weather conditions as those poles in the photo were on the day my mother was born. All it takes today is wet snow, ice, wind, or an errant lightning strike somewhere along the line to cause electricity to go out, heating systems to shut down, computers in supermarkets and pharmacies to go blank, making it impossible to purchase food, water, or medications.

These electrical outages can last from hours, to a day, to a week or more. The cost to private home owners and businesses has not, to my knowledge, been quantified.

And such disruptions occur not just where I live but in communities across this country. These outages are not the result of the large-scale devastation of a hurricane, an earthquake, or a tornado but the effects of not very extreme weather on a fragile system.

I wonder how the technological innovations of the twenty-first century—for  example, the “smart grid”—are to be overlaid on such outdated, overtaxed, inadequate infrastructure.

I travel to other developed countries where public infrastructure has been maintained, improved, and modernized.  Where power outages are rare and exceptional. Where below-ground electrical lines are the norm. Where every community takes for granted functioning infrastructure as basic as consistent electrical supply or modern sewer systems.  Unlike my upstate New York community, where our small village finds itself unable to face the cost of constructing a sewer system to encourage economic development, while our community struggles to support small businesses.

Observing modern infrastructure abroad, I ask where is our sense of national purpose?  Who are we as a country when we neglect our public sector? What has happened to planning and building for the common good? What has happened to the national commitment that enabled rural electrification in the 1930s?  In the Northeast, the decline in the standard of living in the public sphere is sadly evident all around us. It seems we have ceded the modernization of our national infrastructure and our national economic development to a single test of whether the investment will produce short-term profits for private corporations.

In 1942, my immigrant father—proud and deeply grateful to be an American—volunteered  to join the army.  My mother tells how he told her then, “We have to save this country.” As my mother and I read newspapers and magazines and listen—when we can bear to—to the news and discuss the state of this country and the political paralysis, private greed, and undemocratic forces unfolding shockingly before us, we worry about the future for our children, our grandchildren, and our great-grandchildren. And we wonder if this country can still, in fact, be saved.

Update:

On February 26, The Associated Press reported that the winter storm in the Northeast left one million people without power.

330,000 in New Hampshire
260,000 in Connecticut
220,000 in New York State
140,000 in Maine
100,000 in Massachusetts
25,000 in Vermont
11,000 in New Jersey

  • Roosevelt Johnson

    Thanks for focusing on these points. Overhead utilities are dysfunctional and an eye sore. Revamping our infrastructure will provide well-paying jobs and the finished product will be something that will benefit the entire nation.

  • Roosevelt Johnson

    Thanks for focusing on these points. Overhead utilities are dysfunctional and an eye sore. Revamping our infrastructure will provide well-paying jobs and the finished product will be something that will benefit the entire nation.