From highways in Texas to nuclear power plants in Illinois, the concrete, steel and sophisticated engineering that undergird the nation’s infrastructure are being taxed to worrisome degrees by heat, drought and vicious storms.
On a single day this month here, a US Airways regional jet became stuck in asphalt that had softened in 100-degree temperatures, and a subway train derailed after the heat stretched the track so far that it kinked — inserting a sharp angle into a stretch that was supposed to be straight. In East Texas, heat and drought have had a startling effect on the clay-rich soils under highways, which “just shrink like crazy,” leading to “horrendous cracking”….
The heat has caused nuclear plant shut downs for reasons from cooling ponds being too hot to losing so much water to evaporation that the plants need to be shut down. And the needs to fix the grid and infrastructure and drainage continue to rise. Even corporations are realizing how serious these needs are.
Some utilities are re-examining long-held views on the economics of protecting against the weather. Pepco, the utility serving the area around Washington, has repeatedly studied the idea of burying more power lines, and the company and its regulators have always decided that the cost outweighed the benefit. But the company has had five storms in the last two and a half years for which recovery took at least five days, and after the derecho last month, the consensus has changed. Both the District of Columbia and Montgomery County, Md., have held hearings to discuss the option — though in the District alone, the cost would be $1.1 billion to $5.8 billion, depending on how many of the power lines were put underground….
Local governments too are aware how serious these threats are.
Some needs are already known. San Francisco will spend as much as $40 million to modify discharge pipes for treated wastewater to prevent bay water from flowing back into the system.
Even when state and local officials know what they want to do, they say they do not always get the cooperation they would like from the federal government. Many agencies have officially expressed a commitment to plan for climate change, but sometimes the results on the ground can be frustrating, said Ms. Minter of Vermont. For instance, she said, Vermont officials want to replace the old culverts with bigger ones. “We think it’s an opportunity to build back in a more robust way,” she said. But the Federal Emergency Management Agency wants to reuse the old culverts that washed out, or replace them with similar ones, she said.
Ms. Arroyo of Georgetown said the federal government must do more. “They are not acknowledging that the future will look different from the past,” she said, “and so we keep putting people and infrastructure in harm’s way.”