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What do a submerged chemical plant in Houston, bad drinking water in Flint, and the damaged Fukushima nuclear reactor in Japan have in common?

Most Americans are woefully ignorant of why a Hurricane Harvey and other disasters and infrastructure failures wreak so much havoc on their property and lives. Sadly, this ignorance prevents people and businesses from making wiser decisions about where to locate, and the precautions they could take to protect themselves, their property and their operations. Many insist insurance reform is the answer. But insurance should protect against risks that can’t be otherwise hedged, not risks incurred out of ignorance.

Communities can’t be expected to accommodate any imaginable storm. Engineered sewers and canals in American cities and towns are designed to convey storms of a certain intensity/duration (typically, a 100 year storm or less), not apocalyptic storms on the scale of Harvey, not to mention the fixed capacity of rivers and other bodies of water into which engineered sewers and canals discharge. As a practical matter, this means that towns, especially low lying areas, will be subject to flooding when a storm exceeds the design magnitude, which can be adjusted based on risk/cost tolerance. Ironically, big picture design factors, like the magnitude of the design storm, are often decided with little debate and public input.

Few communities and companies have a disciplined “What Could Go Wrong” process for infrastructure and utilities that identifies damaging scenarios outside of a narrow band of risks related to a specific project or an area under improvement. While such a process would not protect against all possible risks, these risks could be better identified and might be hedged. Just as important, these risks could be communicated to the public and/or company leaders, and considered in planning and decision-making. Such a process need not be costly or time consuming, and, done well, could have prevented the Flint debacle, and could have ameliorated the Houston and Fukushima disasters.

The obsession with low bid, aided and abetted by media “watchdogs”, has compromised the performance of infrastructure and utilities, the flawed assumption being that all planners, designers, and contractors are equally competent, so companies with the lowest price should be selected. This flawed reasoning fails to recognize the vast difference in competence/creativity between companies, and the small impact of planning and design costs on long-term infrastructure and utilities cost and performance. Awareness of the limitations of infrastructure, a process to identify worst case scenarios, and transparent and objective qualifications-based selection for planners, designers, and contractors would make our infrastructure and utilities better, smarter, safer, and more economical.

Thomas M. Doran is an Engineering Society of Detroit fellow and former civil engineering professor at Lawrence Technological University.

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