Disasters offer unique lessons in resilience and innovation

We need a bold new transportation innovation in the 21st century that will reinvent all-weather transportation and introduce intermodal ports systems across the country to resilient transportation.

US President Donald Trump meets FEMA Director Brock  (photo credit: REUTERS)
US President Donald Trump meets FEMA Director Brock
(photo credit: REUTERS)
During this respite between Hurricane Harvey’s disastrous landfall on the Gulf Coast and looming approach of Hurricane Irma off the Southeast US, what lessons can we apply along coastal regions that face extreme weather? FEMA administrator Brock Long recently exclaimed that Hurricane Harvey provides a “wake-up call” yet the actual records show that over the past 10 years disasters in the form of wild fires, flooding, droughts and tornadoes have increased in frequency and intensity, with no end in sight, so should it really be a wake-up call? Perhaps the hurricanes of 2017 should be less of a wakeup call and more of a clarion call for old reminders and bold new innovations in an era of angry weather patterns and disruptive new technologies? Here are some factors for our collective consideration: 1 – Preparedness outweighs response in the macro fight against disasters. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, for ever dollar invested in resilience before a disaster, there is a four-dollar savings in cost of recovery response in the wake of the crisis. While the impressive community response to the storm in Texas inspires us all, and the local, state and federal governments are working well together, the investment in response and recovery needs to be refocused on anticipatory prevention, knowing this will happen again in the future.
For example, the greatest return on investment for the 23 oil refineries along the pivotal 21-mile stretch of the Houston Ship Channel is not just in restoring operations now to distribute fuel across the region, but in preventing, protecting and mitigating the adverse impact of inevitable future flooding. Some 80% of the nation’s fuel pipelines come and go from Houston and Texas City, so this is not just an issue for the local economy, but a strategic imperative for the country.
2 – We live in a system of interconnected networks. Complex interdependent critical infrastructure is our greatest strength, and greatest weakness. The global supply chain, our local economies, and flow of vital commodities depend upon the sustainability of electricity, communications, water and transportation – the “lifeline” critical infrastructures.
As we have seen in Houston – the third largest city in America – the intermodal system of systems that connect our maritime ports to the region, and the nation, is robust yet fragile in the face of extreme weather, flooding and storm surge. We must find ways to invest more effectively in proactive efforts (before the storm) in addition to reactionary emergency responses after the event has occurred, because shutting down the flow of goods, fuel, shipping and freight mobility is harmful to the work force, local economy, regional stability... and national security.
3 – Strategic national security requirements are involved.
All national security and global influence begins “at home” and the homeland depends on economic resilience. If the sine qua non – essential ingredient – of our society is a stable and vibrant economy, then our maritime ports and shipping providers represent the vital ligaments of our national security.
Across the nation we depend upon the continuous flow of domestic and international trade to and from our ports of entry. An average of 1,200 to 1,500 cargo freighters enter our 361 ports every day. This intersection of trade is the center of gravity for the nation’s exports and imports because strategic ports such as Miami, New York, Los Angeles and Houston are moving goods every day and sustaining the US economy.
We must ensure the unique intermodal transportation infrastructure of our ports is able to withstand and recover quickly after a disaster – the essence of resilience. When a major port closes (anywhere in the nation) the related economy stops, and when that happens, especially in that vital location, we are vulnerable financially as well as from a security perspective.
4 – Science and technology offer transformative solutions.
Too often we rely upon 20th-century solutions to address 21st-century threats or breakthrough opportunities.
At the heart of our transportation infrastructure system is the ability to move people, freight and utilities from sources to destinations and ensure access to homes and workplaces, especially during a natural or man-made disaster.
One clear lesson that emerges during major disasters is that we are solely dependent upon our highways, runways, railways and maritime waterways, and when they are flooded or congested, our communities, businesses and personal lives are seriously impacted.
We need a bold new transportation innovation in the 21st century that will reinvent all-weather transportation and introduce intermodal ports systems across the country to resilient transportation networks. For example, we recently held a symposium at the University of Houston to introduce the idea of high-speed tube transportation called the hyperloop, which was attended by transportation planners, local government officials and port authority leaders, as well as academic researchers.
Hyperloop is a self-contained, clean, fast, economical answer to this vexing transportation challenge that offers a next-generation solution to thinking – and acting differently – beyond the next severe flooding or disruptive crisis.
For example, tube transportation could ensure sustained flow of cargo and commodities from offshore platforms to inland freight distribution centers, and reinforce existing systems by moving essential humanitarian aid and first responders after the storm passes.
Further, the growing pressure on existing transportation systems due to port congestion and demands for greater access by deep-draft post-Panamax vessels could also be relieved by futuristic terminal infrastructure afforded by hyperloop technology. And it would complement and reinforce existing conveyances where transportation systems could be integrated.
Resilience is disaster-agnostic. It raises the level of preparedness by strengthening our efforts before, during, and after the crisis. Hyperloop is relevant because it is a harbinger for the reinvention of transportation.
The science, engineering and technology are in place, but the political will, private investment and public support will require more than a wake-up call to commercialize the future of transportation – and ensure we are poised to respond and recover quickly from future disasters.
The writer is a former director on the White House National Security Council staff, current president of Hyperloop Advanced Research Partnership (HARP), and author of Beyond the Storms-Strengthening Homeland Security & Disaster Management to Achieve Resilience.