Three years ago, two hurricanes brushed New York City. The subways flooded, the system shut down and people were left stranded with no way of knowing when or how they would get to work or back home. On August 8 of this year, for the fourth time in seven months, the New York City transit system again shut down during and after a storm; the August 8 event dumped 3.5 inches of rain on the city and saw a tornado touch down in Brooklyn. As is the case with nearly every heavy rainfall, neighborhoods in Southeast Queens and nearer to home, Woodside, Elmhurst and Maspeth, were flooded.
Last year a power blackout paralyzed Northwest Queens for almost two weeks. This year, there were isolated blackouts in Flushing and other Queens neighborhoods. In early July a lightning strike took out a transformer and blacked out some of the Upper East Side of Manhattan and July 18 a steam pipe erupted in Midtown Manhattan. One person died and others were seriously injured, including a man who now lies in a medically induced coma in the Cornell Burn Unit of New York Hospital.
On August 1 a bridge on Interstate 35 collapsed into the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, Minnesota. There are 750 more bridges like it across the country, including several in this vicinity. In fact, the tri-state area is no stranger to such bridge disasters: in 1983 a piece of I-95 spanning the Mianus River in Greenwich, Connecticut collapsed, killing three people, and in 1987 a section of the New York State Thruway fell into Schoharie Creek near Amsterdam, New York. Ten people were killed.
City Councilmembers David Weprin and James Vacca joined with city Comptroller William Thompson in calling for a commission to address the city's crumbling infrastructure. The principal focus would be on an electricity delivery system prone to increasingly frequent outages; the city's outdated steam piping system; bridge and tunnel safety; inadequacies in the sewer system, and roadway repair and maintenance.
We applaud their efforts and we wish them well. There exists an obvious need for such a commission and an even more obvious need to put in place policies and procedures for mitigating future calamities.
While we are thankful to see such a proposal, the deeper question remains unanswered: why is it that we have to wait until a disaster happens before we look at the bridges, electricity transmission system or subterranean steam pipes? How many people have to die before we acknowledge the need as a matter of routine to pay closer attention to the infrastructure that directly or indirectly allows us to engage in the myriad activities that make up our daily lives?
Much of that infrastructure is analogous to salt- noticeable only in its absence. We became very much aware of the aging electricity transmission system only when the lights went out last summer. We missed the subways when they were not there for us on August 8- almost as much as we missed any kind of notification about what was happening from the people purportedly in charge of the system. The only people who knew about the Con Edison steam pipe network were the people who worked on it- until a steam pipe ruptured on July 18. A good part of the time the only people who pay much attention to the bridges that span various bodies of water and other highways besides those with serious phobias about crossing bridges are highway architecture buffs and the engineers who periodically inspect the spans. We notice the sewers only when they back up into our basements.
To a large extent the public's indifference to the infrastructure can be forgiven. We expect the sewers and the subways, the bridges and the power grid, to function and most of the time they do, whether we pay them any attention or not. That is, after all, why we pay tolls and taxes and utility bills. Nor do we give any thought to the people and processes responsible for making repairs to the infrastructure- unless those repair processes inconvenience us.
Too often, for any number of reasons, the repair process does not happen. The results are crowds of people kept from going to work or school, the loss of millions of dollars in business inventory and income and, sadly, fatalities or crippling injuries.
We who have to pick up the pieces, live with the losses and try to reconstruct our lives are left to ask "Why?"
Why don't we fix problems before they happen?
Why do we have funds available to build structures, but almost no money for upkeep and repair?
Why is "preventive maintenance" nowhere in the vocabulary or consciousness of the public officials charged with the upkeep of the city, state and federal infrastructure?
Why are people inconvenienced- worse yet, have to die- before we get wise to ourselves?