The formula for surviving hurricanes and other weather disasters is part preparation, and part recovery. The more effort and resources we invest in the former, the more success we can expect with the latter. That’s especially important to consider now that the nation’s infrastructure needs become more urgent.

Extreme weather events disrupt our lives in vast and lasting ways, and the impact on our transportation system is crippling when torrential flooding renders our physical foundation overwhelmed and unusable for extended periods. Just consider what Hurricane Ida did recently from New Orleans to New Jersey and New York, where Central Park got more than three inches of rain in a single hour – the most ever in the city’s history. And though it wasn’t as severe, Tropical Storm Nicholas nonetheless pounded parts of southeast Texas and southwest Louisiana with close to 20 inches of rain, causing widespread flooding and threatening roadway stability.

The current hurricane season is more than half-way to its end, and we don’t yet know what the last several weeks will bring. But we do know this: Weather disasters are becoming more frequent, more severe, and more expensive.

Between 1980 and 2020, the U.S. was hammered by nearly 300 weather disasters that caused more than $1 billion in losses. Harvey, the last major storm to hit Texas in 2017, was the most costly in history, leaving behind $190 billion in damage.

Transportation systems customarily have been designed to withstand historical ranges of extreme weather and climate, but documented increases in storm frequency (and often severity) make archival records a feeble predictor of future risk. We typically respond to weather disasters reactively, relying upon established rehabilitation and repair practices to return service to pre-storm levels.

For a time, that worked well enough. But as demands on our infrastructure system grow along with the population, and funding to meet those needs lags behind, that strategy no longer makes sense. What we need now is to make our infrastructure more resilient — better able to withstand and bounce back from massive and devastating natural forces.

Better planning isn’t only a good idea; it’s also mandated by U.S. law. States are now required to address resiliency in their planning processes and to ensure that those processes integrate weather variability and extreme weather event considerations into the planning process and asset management. How the states actually do that is largely left up to them. Research done by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute identified several potential mitigation measures and investment priorities, along with associated challenges.

  • Thinner pavement structures, particularly those without treated subgrades and less than two inches of asphalt are particularly vulnerable to floods when they occur.  These thinner pavement structures represent a large share of many cities’ road networks. Hardening them would be expensive, but it’s also necessary to make roads more resilient by employing higher design standards with new construction or rehabilitation of existing infrastructure.
  • Adequate drainage is critical. Increasing the size of culverts and ensuring proper maintenance would improve resiliency, but we also need to develop robust models to evaluate the impact of floods and storm water management measures on pavement service life. Stormwater management systems (similar to existing pavement management systems) need to be developed, too. That’s because stormwater is a lot like traffic; fixing a bottleneck in one location can create problems downstream.
  • Elevating roads would help, but that’s very expensive. Identifying alternative routes would also make a difference, but those, too, could require hardening and or elevation with associated costs. The cost of elevating roads or hardening redundant roads should, however, be balanced against the cost imposed by the risk of future flooding events.

Any severe storm – even if it falls short of rivaling Harvey – poses severe risks to our transportation system, and by extension, to our economy and our very existence.  Increasingly frequent and severe storms leave behind devastation with massive financial costs associated with loss of service, repair, and recovery.

We should weigh those costs in the same way we do when we consider how we maintain our cars. Some of us might remember the 1970s television advertisement for oil filters. As the mechanic in the ad said, “You can pay me now, or you can pay me later.” The same admonition applies to our infrastructure.

We can’t prevent major weather disasters. But by investing resources into better planning and engineering, and focusing on resilience long before disaster strikes, we will be far better able to weather whatever comes our way.

Editor’s Note: The above guest column was penned by Jolanda Prozzi, senior research scientist at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. The column appears in The Rio Grande Guardian International News Service with the permission of the author. Prozzi can be reached by email via: [email protected].

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above guest column shows Jolanda Prozzi speaking at a conference. Photo credit: The Upper Great Plains Transportation Institute, a research, education, and outreach center at North Dakota State University.

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