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  • Mark Reiner, PhD, PE

The Collective Inaction of Aging Infrastructure

Updated: Feb 24

"...our infrastructure is crumbling."

President Biden, March 2021


Introduction

After the ASCE 2013 Infrastructure Report Card [1] came out with dire warnings regarding an “aging infrastructure crisis”, it has been on my radar since. Initial deep dives into the Report Card led to an early conclusion that all that was needed to resolve the crisis was – funding. But it became clear that funding alone does not fully address why the wealthiest nation in the world has "crumbling infrastructure". What was missing from the Report Card is: 1) a holistic methodology for quantifying the impacts of failing (aka, crumbling) infrastructure across systems to provide a city perspective; and 2) redefining hazards to include aging infrastructure.


When I discovered that aging infrastructure was not considered a hazard in FEMA’s hazard mitigation planning (HMP). I wrote:

“…, it may seem contradictory that aging infrastructure is not considered a hazard – neither by dictionary definition nor by Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The dictionary definition of hazard is ‘an unavoidable danger or risk, even though often foreseeable.’ Aging infrastructure is definitely avoidable; therefore, it is accurate to say that it does not meet this definition. Nevertheless, without corrective measures it can lead to injuries to the public, property damage, and even loss of life. And, as per FEMA’s guidance for Hazard Mitigation Plans (HMP), a community needs to address natural hazard design events and is also encouraged to address manmade … hazards. (‘Manmade’ refers to vulnerabilities of systems to terrorism….).” [2]

The ‘dictionary definition’ of hazard (referenced above) was obtained from dictionary.com. At the time, it didn’t seem necessary to deep-dive into different definitions of a common English word. However, the FEMA HAZUS Manual has a significantly different definition: “An act or phenomenon that has the potential to produce harm or other undesirable consequences to a person or thing.” [3] Quite a few differences in these definitions.


Prerequisite of Danger

While “unavoidable” would indicate a 100 percent chance of danger, there is no reference as to who or what would in danger in the dictionary definition. Whereas in FEMA’s definition, potential can range from 0 to 100 percent, but it provides the prerequisite that harm to “…a person or thing” is required. Interestingly that was the same, obvious, conclusion for aging infrastructure (above quote), that “…without corrective measures it can lead to injuries to the public, property damage, and even loss of life.”


A hazard differs from an event in that it does – damage to a person or thing. For example, a Category 5 hurricane (event) that hits a denuded, uninhabited island is not a hazard – it is just an event. But if that same event hit inhabited lands, it would be a hazard.


Indiscriminate vs Targeted

The use of ‘act or phenomenon’ in FEMA’s definition explains the hazard categories in the HMP (natural hazards and manmade). While an ‘act’ could be viewed as an act of God (per force majeure clauses, aka act of God clause), a better association is that ‘phenomenon’ is a natural hazard, and an ‘act’ is an intentional action, i.e., manmade (terrorism). This aligns with other definitions of a natural hazard: “A natural phenomenon that can produce damaging disruptions on systems and their functionality.” [4] Notice that “phenomenon” is used exclusively for a natural event. Whereas “act” is not included in this definition. But because of the word “or” in the FEMA definition, it still works.


This distinction between phenomenon and act is important. Natural hazards are indiscriminate in their targets, magnitude, and timing. Of course, natural hazard occurrences can be generalized by the physical environment, e.g., avalanches occur in the mountains with layered snowpack on slope grades between 30 and 45 degrees, and hurricane season is June through November in the Gulf of Mexico. However, natural events do not target specific people or things. Whereas an ‘act’ is manmade and does specifically threaten a person’s or thing’s vulnerabilities (weaknesses). Even an apparent indiscriminate bomb blast is a targeted event due to the selection of location and timing.


A natural hazard (phenomenon) is indiscriminate and an act is manmade and intentional. Both become hazards when a person or a thing are damaged.

Threats and Vulnerabilities

FEMA’s 2019 National Threat and Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment (THIRA) juxtaposes threat and hazard 138 times to make the point that a hazard contains threats. [5] But it is worth noting how threats differ between manmade and natural hazards. A natural hazard indiscriminately hits an area with equal force. For example, a Category 5 hurricane (wind speeds >157 mph) will hit all buildings, bridges, houses, …etc. that are exposed to the event with similar force. The potential for harm results when the threats exceed the limits of vulnerabilities for each person or thing that are exposed to the hazard. That is, an old building is vulnerable while a buried asset might not be.

Similarly, manmade hazards also contain threats that target specific vulnerabilities to the exposed people or things. The key differences being that specific assets are targeted (e.g., Colonial Pipeline), it is not bound by the physical environment (can occur in any geography in any season), and probabilities are not as scientific. That is, there is no such thing as a return period (100-year precipitation event) or duration (drought) to plan for with regards to manmade hazards. Rather, educated assumptions based on planned events, current trends in cyber-attacks, politics, economics, and regional conflicts provide the basis for preparedness. An event requires the potential for damage to be a hazard. Damage occurs when the contained threat exceed the vulnerabilities of the exposed people or things.


Conclusion – Defining Aging Infrastructure as a Hazard

As stated above, aging infrastructure “…without corrective measures…can lead to injuries to the public, property damage, and even loss of life.” Thus, aging infrastructure fits the FEMA HAZUS definition of a hazard – potential to damage a person or a thing. And, while obviously not a natural hazard, it is equally as obvious that it is not a manmade hazard caused by terrorism. But failures of aging infrastructure are not accidents either. We know we have structurally deficient bridges. It's avoidable. So, what do we call the event that has led to our aging (aka, crumbling) infrastructure crisis?


Reverting to the fact that (from first quote above) – “Aging infrastructure is definitely avoidable” – we can call the event that has caused the potential for harm deferred maintenance. But rather than deferred maintenance being classified as either terrorism or an accident [6], it seems that another descriptor is required. After all, even though deferred maintenance has led to aging infrastructure, what maintenance does occur is attempting to improve the worse vulnerabilities in each system. Therefore, we cannot even assign neglect as the reason for deferred maintenance. So, who is responsible for aging infrastructure?

What needs to be added to current classifications of hazards

Back to the ASCE conclusion that the lack of funding was to blame for the aging infrastructure crisis. The lack of funding can be blamed on society, collectively, as voters and politicians. Adding to this, also consider the first of the two missing conclusions (in Introduction). That there is not a holistic methodology for engaging and empowering the city-perspective (elected officials, senior staff, residents, and businesses) to better understand and communicate the negative ramifications of aging infrastructure to their constituents.


There are frameworks intended to include the community in discussion on the resiliency of infrastructure systems. For example, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Community Guide for Resilience recognizes that an “…understanding how a community’s social institutions and needs depend on the built environment is key.” [7] While extremely valuable, these and other frameworks lack a methodology for assessing the baseline conditions of a city’s infrastructure systems and its relationship to other city systems (e.g., social, economic, and governance). [2] These communication breakdowns are prevalent, and all contribute to the crisis. We need to:

“…examine the barriers to change that are preventing utilities and municipal governments from shifting from the decay rate paradigm, which uses a capital investment planning (CIP) process – where the replacement time horizon is three to five times longer than the design life of the infrastructure – to a resilient communications-based paradigm where planners, city decision makers, and the public are provided information to enable informed decisions regarding systems level assessments and prioritize investments that reduce risks and costs while maintaining a high quality infrastructure.” [8]

In conclusion, aging infrastructure is a manmade hazard caused by deferred maintenance derived from collective irresponsibility. Engagement requires relevant information to take knowledgeable corrective actions.


Footnotes

[1] Quadrennial ASCE Report Card (2013), latest issued March, 2021

[2] Reiner, M., & Rouse, D. (2017). Dependency model: reliable infrastructure and the resilient, sustainable, and livable city. Sustainable And Resilient Infrastructure, 3(3), 103-108. doi: 10.1080/23789689.2017.1386041

[3] FEMA HAZUS Manual

[4] NRC, 2012

[5] FEMA THIRA

[6] National Continuity Programs | FEMA.gov

[7] NIST, 2016

[8] Reiner, M, and Cross, J. (2018). Addressing the Infrastructure Decay Rate in US Cities: the case for a Paradigm Shift in Information and Communication, in Gardoni, P. Routledge handbook of sustainable and resilient infrastructure. 1st ed. London and New York: Routledge, pp.791-807.


Cover Photo:

The credit to the cover image of the bridge collapse at Frick Park, PA. is Bloomberg via Getty Images. It is used under terms of fair use as this is an informative blog that is not monetized and no claims of copyright are intended.

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