Tuesday, September 20, 2011

6/29 Engineering

On the 10-year anniversary of 9/11, the Economist bluntly pointed out a fact that the engineering community needs to start circling around - - "America's biggest worry is not a terrorist attack on a big airport or port but the fragility of the country's infrastructure." (See Difference Engine: Disaster waiting to happen).  What was clearly needed after 9/11 was 9/11 engineering - - security engineering, support of overseas military operations, complex intelligence computer networks, etc.  But 9/11 is not the only date that engineers needed to be concerned with.  A bigger risk in the long run might be ignoring 6/29.  This is the date, June 29, 1956, that The Federal Highway Act of 1956 (remember the full title of the legislation - - "The Interstate and Defense Highways Act") was signed.  This is the date that marks the high point of our national commitment to infrastructure - - in terms of our economic, social, and national security development.

The Economist brought this all into focus in the context of the recent blackout in Southern California.  The first two paragraphs of the article clearly highlight the paradox, problems, and tensions between 9/11 engineering and 6/29 engineering.  The article observed:

"Last weekend's vigilance against potential terrorist attacks was an impressive demonstration of America's resolve to prevent events of September 11, 2001 from ever happening again.  From your correspondent's hillside perch above Santa Monica Bay, he watched National Guard F-16 jets make repeated sweeps across the ocean by Los Angeles International Airport and then on to the huge port complex of Long Beach and San Pedro, while a Navy P-3 Orion maritime-surveillance aircraft circled overhead.  The cacophony was deafening but reassuring.  Angelinos slept easier that night.

Yet, further down the coast, 6 million citizens of southern California and southwest Arizona, along with their cousins across the Mexican border, were just recovering from a man-made disaster that had plunged their sweltering world into darkness - - shutting down schools, hospitals, offices, factories, shops, and restaurants, as lighting, air-conditioning and other essential equipment ceased to function."

The problem, as ASCE and others have repeatedly pointed out, is not just an inadequate electrical grid or a deteriorating highway system.  It is the complete system - - where discrete decline has translated into systemic decline and higher levels of risk.  This has broad impacts - - from economic constraints to national security capabilities to continued social development.  Balance needs to be a key consideration - - overinvestment in 9/11 engineering while underinvesting in 6/29 engineering puts the entire country at risk.  From blackouts to bridge collapses to inadequate drinking water quality - - we need a better national discussion regarding risk.  Yes, we are safer getting on that plane on 9/11, but are we safer crossing the bridge on 6/29?

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