July 30, 2013
By John Larson
As we approach the hurricane season, the potential impact of extreme weather escalates for all of our communities.
In the face of looming disaster, The House of Representatives' underfunding of the chief agency responsible for flood protection demonstrates an alarming indifference to the crumbling infrastructure around us, and highlights a need to act.
The Army Corps of Engineers is charged with protecting our homes, businesses and natural resources here in Connecticut and across the nation. Unfortunately, the Appropriations bill that passed through the House turned a blind eye to the perils faced by the people behind the aging levee systems in Hartford and East Hartford and across the nation.
We are currently relying on a levee system that has not seen a major overhaul since the earlier half of the 20th century, despite development, changing water levels and a seepage issue that threatens the integrity of the system with each passing day.
While the costs of these improvements are high, the costs of doing nothing are far greater. If these systems fail, much of greater Hartford would be impacted including I-91, downtown Hartford and Brainard Airport along with vital pipelines and wastewater treatment facilities. Various studies by the MDC have verified these threats, calling for mitigation on seepage issues and the replacement of toe drains, pump stations and conduits.
We all know the terrible consequences that occur when flooding and natural disasters strike in highly populated areas. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy devastated the Northeast, resulting in the loss of life, billions of dollars worth of damage and countless upended families across the region.
Regrettably, the very agency charged with taking preventive steps to curb the impact of extreme weather receives little more than $1 billion in annual construction funding, despite having an estimated $60 billion backlog of approved projects awaiting funding. While the Center for American Progress points out that every dollar invested in pre-disaster mitigation or resilience measures can reduce the cost of damage by four dollars, agencies like the Army Corps continue to be vastly underfunded.
This past March, Commander of the New England District Army Corps of Engineers Col Charles Sammaris responded to our invitation to tour the levee system and stated with more than some irony that it is more likely to get emergency funding after a disaster than get funding to make the up-front repairs.
The irony of this will not be lost on the people behind the levees.
Congress cannot sleepwalk its way through this problem. Congress needs to embrace legislation such as a national infrastructure bank that leverages the private sector to give critical projects access to capital. The Senate has passed a water resources bill creating innovative financing mechanisms and a National Levee Safety Program.
At a recent forum in Harford, Republican Chairman Bill Shuster of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure informed us that he is working on crafting legislation aimed at fixing our broken federal levee funding process in the House. Shuster agrees that infrastructure is neither Republican nor Democrat - it is American, and it should be a top priority.
Our Hartford levee system was built as a result of the devastating hurricane of 1938, which left major damage in its wake.
Last year's Hurricane Sandy was just another wakeup call that Congress needs to act.