Tag Archives: infrastructure

10 After 20

“Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood.” – Marie Curie

Here we are!  It’s 2020 – the start of a new year and a new decade.  Forty years ago I was excited about the prospect of witnessing and understanding the birth of a new decade.  I had just turned 16 and couldn’t remember 1970.  But this was different.  A whole new decade!  As my parents and I often did, we staged a New Year’s party in 1979; inviting family, friends and neighbors.  I had taken the time to cut up strips of multi-colored paper into literally thousands of squares, which I then tossed into the air from a large brown paper bag at the stroke of midnight.

I was considerably more excited ten years later, as we welcomed the 1990s, which – even now – remains the best decade of my life.  I was a young adult by then, working for a major bank in Dallas; a small personal accomplishment that made me feel I was finally a part of society and not some frustrated observer on the outside looking into a seemingly untouchable world.  During that time I began making concerted attempts to become a published writer and even contemplated returning to college.  These latter two dreams each wouldn’t materialize for more than another decade later.

The turn of the century – and the millennium – was one of the most exciting moments I’ve ever experienced.  Like the dawn of the 1990s, it remains a high point of my life.  Twenty years ago the world looked more hopeful and inviting.  I wasn’t nearly as excited about the 2010s.  Things had grown kind of awkward for me by then.  But it’s come and gone.

So alas, we are at the threshold of the third decade of the 21st century.  Every New Year’s bears the excitement of a renewal; a chance to alter our priorities and improve our stations in life.  Yet, it’s different with the start of a new decade.  Since the early 1900s, societal changes have occurred rapidly.  For millennia, time periods were designated by century; now they’re often designated by decade.  Each ten-year interval boasts its own cultural shifts; fashion and music trends; and political dynamics.  As our life expectancy increases, so does our concept of time.

I’m approaching this decade with more caution, however.  As I tend to do, I maintain a safe distance and analyze the universe around me and wonder what more can be done to improve not just my life, but everyone’s lives.

These last two decades have seen an explosion of technological and cultural advances, both here in the United States and across the globe.  But, in many ways, things haven’t changed much.  I’ve focused my concern on how dismal our political and economic well-being have become.  The pathetic presidency of George W. Bush and the ever-increasing disorientation of the Donald Trump administration have set us back on many levels.  Unlike 20 years ago we now have the greatest wealth gap in over a century.  The first decade of the present century should have been an extraordinary time of progressive social and technological advancement.  Yes, everyone seemingly has a cell phone and a personal computer.  But so many promising visions of the future were lost to Middle East conflicts and an extreme level of corporate deregulation.  The “Great Recession” squashed hope for many people across the nation.  While many of my fellow Americans wonder if Bitcoin will make a resounding return to the financial sphere or what latest cell phone apps will be available in the coming months, I’m contemplating the grander picture.

In the 19th century, the U.S. built the world’s first transcontinental railroad system and helped create telephones and electric lighting.  At the start of the 20th century, we sent men into the air and then constructed the world’s largest highway system.  In 1962, President John F. Kennedy issued a challenge to the nation; wanting us “to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things; not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”  And, we did just that!  Just seven years later, Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the lunar surface.

The 1960s and 70s saw the birth of various civil rights movements: women, non-Whites, and gays and lesbians.  That forced America to live up to its promise to be a land of equality and prosperity.  We finally began seeing the fruits of those movements in the 1990s.

Yet here stands the U.S. – still mired in Middle East conflicts and dealing with an economy that, on the surface, looks extraordinary.  But those of us struggling with medical bills and increasingly high costs of basic living aren’t exactly thrilled that the U.S. stock market is functioning wonderfully for large corporations that don’t often pay their taxes and feel they have the unquestionable right to contaminate the environment in the name of profit.

Although I’m an introvert, I remain optimistic and would like to see society achieve some grand accomplishment over the next 10 years.

Infrastructure – As of 2017, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave the U.S. a grade of D+ for infrastructure.  That’s an overall assessment of everything from bridges to railroads.  To say they’re falling apart is dismissively juvenile.  A grade is just a letter, but the implications are dire.  In 2007, a section of Interstate 35 through Minneapolis collapsed, killing 13 people and injuring 145.  But, nearly 13 years later, the U.S. is still spending more on military intervention in the perpetually-chaotic Middle East than making serious efforts to rebuild, or even refurbish, highways like I35.  The ASCE estimates the nation will need up to 4.5 trillion USD to repair or rebuild much of our infrastructure by 2025.  It’s one critical issue on which elected officials of all political stripes might agree.  Instead, we have a president who wants to spend even more money to build a wall along the nation’s southern border with México.  I can’t even contemplate how much that would cost.  Knowing the U.S. federal government, though, it would be much more than initial estimates.  Still, as I move around my own local area, I notice roads that have been under construction since the start of the last decade!

Subterranean Power and Telecommunication Lines – In September of 2017, Hurricane Maria rolled over Puerto Rico as a borderline category 5 storm.  With an estimated cost of 94 billion USD, it stands as one of the most expensive natural disasters in U.S. history.  And Maria didn’t even reach the American mainland.  As with most such calamities, residents in the impact zones lived without power, which includes clean water.  Like Andrew did to Florida in 1992, and Katrina to the Gulf Coast in 2005, Maria destroyed a substantial number of power and telecommunication lines across Puerto Rico.  Our government’s response?  USD 5 billion in aid and a president tossing paper towels into a raucous crowd.

Tropical storm systems aren’t our only nemesis.  Currently, the U.S. is dealing with yet another round of powerful winter weather, with strong winds flipping vehicles and blizzard conditions hampering travel.  It’s not uncommon for massive weather phenomena to impact more than 100 million people.  Last October the Dallas, Texas area experienced a rash of tornado outbreaks.  But that’s just in one city in one state.  Other areas across the country have been struck by these meteorological vortexes.  And, of course, power and telecommunication lines are among the casualties.

The same happens after floods, tornadoes, wildfires and earthquakes.  Humans can never control Earth’s natural elements.  Every time we’ve tried, those elements remind us who holds the true power.  Still, we can lessen the severity of unruly weather by burying as many of our power and telecommunication lines underground as possible.  It’s nothing new.  People have been pushing this concept for years.  And there are the usual detractors.  Although a number of power and telecommunication lines have already been interred, opponents claim they’re not always more reliable than overhead lines.  While overhead lines experience more outages, subterranean lines are generally more difficult to access and repair when problems with them do arise.  Another obstacle, of course, is funding.  There are greater costs associated with the installation of subterranean lines.  The costs would have to be passed down to consumers somehow.  But, I feel it’s all worth the financial burden.  Ultimately, it costs people more to go without power – both in actual money and lives lost.  The expenses incurred with the initial installations and ongoing maintenance will more than pay for themselves in the ensuing years.

Space – Since humans first looked up to the sky and began studying the stars, we’ve wondered what it would be like to fly and visit another celestial body.  Now, we’ve taken flight and ventured onto the moon.  The next logical step would be Mars.  Plenty of people – from Elon Musk to Mars One – are making a concerted effort to get there.  In the 1970s, the U.S. became the first nation to reach Mars with the Viking I and II voyages.  We’ve done it again recently with the Curiosity mission.  The U.S. space program was good for the country and the world, as it spurred a number of technological developments; mainly with telecommunications, but also with engineering and robotics.

Sadly, if the U.S. wants to send humans to the moon now, we couldn’t do it.  We’ve let that go.  Again, it’s the war factor – more money spent on Middle East conflicts than on things that really matter.  But I would like to see the U.S. rejuvenate its space program and begin establishing a lunar colony; thus making interplanetary travel materialize from the pages of science fiction into reality.  And, of course, we should make a concerted effort to send a craft with humans to Mars by the end of this decade.  There’s more technology in a single Smart Phone than there was in all of the Apollo 11 lunar module.  We can make this happen.

Thousands of years ago humans thought Earth was the only place in the universe that harbored any semblance of life.  We’re starting to realize that’s not true.  We exist on this third rock from the sun, but I’m certain we have never been alone.  And, even if we are (by some odd fluke of nature), what’s to say we can’t venture outward and make our world more hospitable?  If we rise above our own political and social distractions, we’ll understand we can do better than this.  We have to do better.  I can’t imagine us living in a world of such chaos and uneasiness.  Throughout this next decade, we have to move forward.  Time will.  We have to follow it.

Photo by Josh Sorenson.

Leave a comment

Filed under Essays

Crash Factor

A representative will be with you shortly.

A representative will be with you shortly.

On this day twenty years ago, the department at the bank where I worked in downtown Dallas experienced a catastrophic system disruption.  I was an associate in the funds transfer division’s customer service unit.  I helped our clients with whatever problems arose regarding their domestic and international financial transfers.  As a moderately large institution, the bank processed millions of dollars on a daily basis; sending money all over the country and all over the world.  With a few exceptions, things operated relatively smoothly.

The 1993 bombing of New York’s World Trade Center had made bank officials realize the stark vulnerability of its various operations.  A large New York-based financial institution housed its funds transfer division in that same tower.  But they had a back-up outfit established in a location several miles away.  Thus, when the truck bomb exploded, the company was able to switch operations to their satellite office and proceed normally – all other things considered.

Shortly thereafter, my employer rushed to create similar back-up protocols for every division.  The wire transfer department established an office in suburban Dallas and assigned certain individuals to staff the location in the event of an emergency.  I was one of those designated associates.

Then came April 2, 1996, and the most curious of incidents occurred; one for which the bank actually hadn’t planned.  There was no bombing; no monster tornado; no building power outage; no gunman; not even the vending machines ceased operating, which would have certainly caused a riot among the employees.  (I mean, if you can’t get a Coke or a Snickers after dealing with bitchy customers, how else can you get through the day?)

The event was just shy of a total system collapse.  The company had two communication lines with the Federal Reserve Bank: one for transmitting outgoing payments and the other for incoming.  Shortly after 10 a.m. local time, the outgoing line inexplicably short-circuited.  The incoming line functioned properly throughout the entire day.  Even more inexplicably is that company programmers – the people paid thousands of dollars to create and maintain these systems – couldn’t figure out what happened with that outgoing line.  As we learned later, they didn’t take the problem too seriously at first.  They apparently thought it would right itself without further delay and much intervention.  This is akin to contemporary tech support people saying, “Just reboot,” when you experience a computer problem.  It’s a step above the ‘Press any key’ command.

The programmers were wrong.  By noon that day, panic had started to settle into everyone’s minds.  Well… not us lowly non-managerial associates.  We were not apprised of the seriousness of the matter – as usual – and instructed to tell customers – as usual – the bank was working on it and had everything under control.  Those of us occupying the lower rungs of the corporate food chain (the folks who don’t own the dairy, but milk the cows) really had no idea of the situation’s gravity until late in the day.

By the time those highly-paid programmers finally rectified the crisis, it was too late.  It was after 6 p.m., and the Federal Reserve had to stop processing wire transfers.  Literally millions of dollars in customer funds – corporate and individual – had not left the bank.  It was bad enough to affect interest rates on a national level for that day.  Even the president of the United States was made aware of the crisis.

It didn’t help that the event occurred as the first anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing approached, and people were growing more concerned about the pending Y2K disaster.  That following Friday morning the wire transfer division held its usual quarter end meeting.  My unit manager addressed the crowd by saying, “You know we can’t get through today without discussing April 2.”  Technically, the day fell at the start of the second business quarter.  But, like an all-you-can-eat buffet after a week at a diet camp, it was too good a deal to pass up.  They had to talk about it.  This is where it went from bad to whimsical; the latter courtesy of yours truly.

One woman, some forgettable high-ranking bank official who I’d never seen before, instructed everyone on how to respond to customer inquiries about “The Event.”  She tried to explain that we shouldn’t get too detailed about what happened and certainly not offer any specific compensation.  That’s what she tried to say.  But, you know, things always look so damn good on paper.  As a writer, I would have been more than happy to help her compose her frazzled thoughts into a coherent, practical speech.  But, as a lowly cow-milker, she didn’t seek my advice.  Instead, the verbiage that tumbled from her perky lips sounded like we should just pretend nothing happened on April 2.

I immediately began chuckling, which drew the attention of those around me.  Then I started laughing, which drew even more attention.  And, in that gathering of some 200 business professionals, I leapt to my feet and loudly interpreted: “Okay, everybody, we impacted interest rates across the country for a day!  The president of the United States knows what happened!  But – sh-sh – don’t tell anyone about it!”

More laughter ensued from the crowd.  The woman standing up front tried to interject, but it was futile.

“So, here’s how you handle the call,” I continued, holding a phantom phone receiver up to my ear.  “‘April 2?  What about April 2?  I have no idea what you’re talking about.  Get off the phone!’”

The room erupted.  Even the cadre of executives lined up at the front like a WestPoint brigade – including that one woman – were laughing.  They all got the message: there was no getting away from the severity of “The Event.”  All the back-up protocols they’d set in place three years earlier had failed to consider this mess.

That day is lost in the annals of financial history and pales in comparison to the catastrophe of September 11, 2001.  When the two largest buildings of the World Trade Center were attacked with – of all things – large jet liners and collapsed, survival was the immediate concern for anyone nearby.  As the dust cleared and the tears fell, scores of businesses realized that, amidst the carnage, they had also lost real estate space, phone lines and reams of data.

But, just as the nation recovered from that horror, the Northeastern corridor experienced a massive blackout on August 11, 2003.  It reached as far as west as Ohio.  Some 50 million people were directly impacted in a disaster that lasted more than a day.  It reminded many of the 1977 New York City Blackout, which was equally reminiscent of the 1965 “Great Northeast Blackout.”

How could any of these things happen to one of the largest, wealthiest and most powerful nations on Earth?  It’s not enough to wonder if you’re going to have a rough commute home from work.  A Category 5 hurricane poses a serious threat to any coastal community.  But so does a long-lasting power outage from the failure of an overworked, under-maintained facility.

At the start of this blog four years ago, one of the features was the “Mayan Calendar Countdown,” my humorous homage to the impending apocalypse of December 21, 2012.  It was all in good fun, but I included many authentic survivalist tips.  Some were obvious: guns and power generators; others were practical: canned meat and knives; a few were almost laughable: chocolate and gold bullion.  It really does make sense, however, to have your own power generator and a water treatment device.  You don’t have to be part of a right-wing extremist group to understand the vulnerabilities inherent in computer systems and crumbling interstate highways.  Donning military fatigues and playing war games in some wooded area isn’t required to be prepared for power failures that may last for weeks or even months.

Some people lose it if their Facebook page gets hacked.  I’d love to see them react to reddish-brown water pouring from their faucets – which doesn’t stop.  In developed nations, we expect such water to flow clearly and purely; air systems to pump out warm or cool breezes; microwave ovens to function on queue – all with little effort on our part.  People who are mortified by a gluten-filled sandwich would probably die if they had to catch a fish in a stream, gut it and then cook it on a rock.

In March of 1888, a powerful blizzard slammed the Northeastern U.S.; a calamity that killed more than 400 people and dumped as much as 55 inches of snow in most areas.  A blizzard is actually an arctic hurricane, which strikes with the same level of ferocity as their tropical counterparts.  Canadian and European meteorologists name them, too.  At the time of the “Great Blizzard of 1888,” roughly 1 in 4 Americans lived in the area between the state of Maine and Washington, D.C.  Temperatures across the Northeast had been in the 50s on March 10, 1888.  But, when the storm arrived the following day, wind gusts reached 85 miles per hour in some locations, and temperatures plummeted to below freezing within hours.  The largest metropolitan areas in the region – New York, Washington, Boston – came to a virtual standstill amidst the whiteout conditions.  Many residents tried to carry on as usual, but found mass transportation systems paralyzed by the heavy snow.  Venturing outside became perilous.  Wall Street had to shut down for 3 days.  Mark Twain was in New York City at the time and became stranded at a hotel.  P.T. Barnum also got stuck and – always the showman – took the opportunity to entertain fellow refugees at Madison Square Garden.

Near coastal areas, many ships and other vessels sunk in tumultuous waters the storm had generated.  Thousands of farm and wild animals froze to death.  Telecommunication lines collapsed from the heavy winds and / or weight of the snow.  Gas and power lines malfunctioned.  From this event and the catastrophic impact it had on train lines, the concept of the subway was born.

Strangely, though, people living in rural areas fared better than their urban counterparts.  City folks had already come to rely (too much) upon electric lights and trains that ran on time.  Yes, those rubes out in the sticks – living in wood frame abodes with kettle stoves – also suffered the storm’s wrath.  But they were used to such treacherous weather.  They prepared year-round for it.  They never took for granted their ability to deal with the worst nature had to offer, or expected human-made objects and structures to protect them fully and completely.  They just dealt with it as best they could.  Most of the fatalities occurred within the confines of the mighty urban menageries.  The places people deemed civilization couldn’t handle the wintry onslaught.

The “Great Blizzard of 1888” paralyzed the urban centers of the Northeastern U.S., such as New York City.

The “Great Blizzard of 1888” paralyzed the urban centers of the Northeastern U.S., such as New York City.

They often still can’t.  Witness the horrors of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina.  The city of New Orleans, in particular, wasn’t as prepared for such a calamity as officials had proclaimed for years.  It wasn’t so much due to poor infrastructure, but rather to poor social and political structures.  Entrenched corruption and poverty had made the city as vulnerable as the fact most of its geography sat below sea level.

By contrast, Japan, as a whole, has prepared itself well for every imaginable disaster, from earthquakes to volcanic eruptions.  But that degree of security and confidence was shattered on March 11, 2011, when a 9.0 earthquake rocked the northeastern part of the country.  Residents in coastal communities knew the dangers inherent with aftershocks and accompanying tsunamis.  Entire cities and towns had staged regular evacuation drills for years.  (At that bank where I worked, fire drills involved people sauntering into the hallway for a few minutes.  On more than a few occasions, some folks just didn’t make the time for it and remained at their desks.)  In northeastern Japan, many towns had constructed walls up to 30 feet (9.144 m) high along their shorelines to ward off or at least circumvent tsunami waves.  But, when the waves inundated coastal towns, reaching further inland than even the experts anticipated, authorities wondered where they’d gone wrong in the planning.  They didn’t anticipate that subsidence would cause the ground beneath the tsunami-protection walls to drop; thus, abruptly shortening their height.  The trauma continued when the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant malfunctioned, generating the worst nuclear power accident since Chernobyl.  Much of the area hasn’t been repopulated.  Sometimes, that’s actually a more practical, albeit psychologically painful, recourse; more sensible than trying to outwit nature’s more destructive elements.  After a powerful tsunami ravaged Hilo, Hawaii in May of 1960, some sectors of the city closest to the shoreline remain abandoned and were subsequently reclaimed by nature.

It would be impractical for residents of the Dallas / Fort Worth metropolitan area to move because of the constant threats of hail storms and tornadoes.  Northeast Texas lies at the southern end of “Tornado Alley;” a dreaded meteorological vortex where the weather is reliably unpredictable.  Just recently this region of some 10 million people learned of the fragility of the Lewisville Lake Dam; a massive, mostly earthen structure that sits north of Dallas.  An increasing number of rock slides in recent years have eroded the dam’s integrity.  There’s a very real threat of total collapse, which could kill thousands and inundate most areas up to 50 feet (15.24 m).  At full capacity, the dam holds up to 2.5 billion tons (2.268 metric tons) of water.  My parents and I live just a few miles south of it.  It would be almost impossible for us to escape in a vehicle should a massive breach actually occur.  The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers claims it needs millions of dollars to repair the dam, which has now become one of the nation’s most dangerous.  The U.S. government – which miraculously found billions of dollars to fund the Iraq War – can’t seem to locate any cash for the damn dam.  So far, officials are making do with what they can: placing sandbags and tarps to thwart any further erosion.  I wonder if there’s such a thing as industrial-strength duct tape.

Whenever a major disaster strikes – natural or human-made – people will get hurt and people will die.  There’s no way to avoid it.  It’s going to happen.  It’s frustrating enough if you can’t get cash out of a local atm; it’s downright terrifying if you can’t get fresh water from your kitchen tap.  More people reside in urban areas now than ever before in human history.  And thereby, fewer people know how to catch and kill their own food or purify their own water.  What happened to the bank where I worked on April 2, 1996 seemed emblematic – at the time – of the impending Y2K disaster.  We got past that crisis and survived the non-existent 2000 implosion.  It’s no laughing matter, though, when something even more cataclysmic jeopardizes tens of millions of people.

 

Tsunami waves inundated Sendai, Japan on March 11, 2011; reaching further inland than anyone expected.

 

Check out “The Survivalist Blog” for authentic tips on preparing for the worst.

5 Comments

Filed under Essays