Pointing to stark pictures of inundated buildings and washed-out cars from Hurricane Ida, state and city officials are pressing Congress to pass a $1 trillion infrastructure bill.
At least 67 people died across eight states, communities were plunged into darkness for weeks while repairs to the electrical grid plodded along and calls for help went unanswered because of lack of internet access.
The storm prompted demands for more flood mitigation and enhanced building construction to help communities better withstand storms and prevent future Ida-level damage. It also illustrated the need for the expansion of broadband, rural advocates say.
The storm “makes it clear that the bill is important, particularly the resilience aspects of the bill, which are urgent,” said Rick Geddes, a Cornell University economics professor and director of the Cornell Program in Infrastructure Policy, a research center. He mentioned flood mitigation, fire prevention and water conservation, all of which are included in the “resilience” portion of the bill.
“If you keep rebuilding and Mother Nature keeps tearing it down, you might say you should rebuild in a different way,” he said in a telephone interview.
Across the country, governors of both parties are lobbying to ensure resilience measures are included in the sweeping infrastructure bill passed by the U.S. Senate and awaiting further action in the U.S. House. In addition to flood mitigation, drought management and broadband expansion, state officials are particularly interested in bolstering the electrical grid, including placing some wires underground; and taking steps to reduce the number and intensity of wildfires, particularly in the West.
If you keep rebuilding and Mother Nature keeps tearing it down, you might say you should rebuild in a different way. —Rick Geddes, professor, Cornell University
A group of Western governors met virtually with President Joe Biden this summer to outline their wildfire needs, amid a devastating wildfire season.
They called for more tools to fight fires, including more airplanes equipped to drop fire retardants.
California Governor Gavin Newsom (D) said the fires “transcend politics,” noting that his state’s fires are “blowing past all records.”
"We need more boots on the ground," he said. "We do not come close to having the tools in the air that we need."
Hardening State Infrastructure
Louisiana provides a good illustration of what hardening infrastructure can do.
After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which caused more than 1,800 deaths and $125 billion in damage, particularly in New Orleans and surrounding areas, the city undertook a $14 billion flood mitigation program, targeting the most affected parts of the city. In the recent storm, those portions of the city that had been addressed fared better than others where hardening of the levees and improved drainage had not been done. Other parts of the city and many parts of the state were not as fortunate.
Christina Stephens, a spokesperson for Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards (D), said in a phone interview that New Orleans spent $14 billion on flood protection after Katrina. “This is the first time it was really tested and performed well,” she said. But she noted there is still a lot to be done, particularly in drainage, evacuation routes and utilities.
She mentioned the Interstate 10 bridge that goes through both New Orleans and Baton Rouge, where traffic was crawling as people tried to get out ahead of Ida. There were few alternative routes, she said, and new money could widen and enhance other roads.
Edwards, she said, is telling officials in Washington that “in Louisiana we have billions of dollars of unmet infrastructure. We can harden our state.”
U.S. Senator Bill Cassidy (R-La.) said the lessons of Katrina showed that the level of damage experienced this year in Ida “doesn’t have to be inevitable.
“We need to pass our infrastructure bill that improves highways and evacuation routes, strengthens our electric grid and invests in flood mitigation to protect our communities from future devastation,” he said in an email to Stateline.
And he’s not above using the recent devastation to press for U.S. House passage of the $1 trillion bill.
To House members who might find reasons to vote against it, “I say go down to Lafourche and Terrebonne … to people who will not have electricity back until Sept. 29 and tell them you’re going to vote against a bill which hardens our grid, which gives coastal restoration dollars, which has flood mitigation, which will build levees and protect Louisiana and other states from natural disasters, go to those parishes and tell them whatever cockamamie reason you have to vote no,” Cassidy said this month on ABC’s “This Week.”
Opponents Cite Costs
But opponents of the bill said it was too expensive and included many items not directly related to “hard” infrastructure. Louisiana’s other senator, John Kennedy (R), said it was too costly.
“This is not an infrastructure bill. It’s an infrastructure, Green New Deal and welfare bill. Only 23% of the new spending in the bill is for actual infrastructure,” he said in a statement.
He maintained the bill would increase taxes on Louisiana’s petroleum industry and would hike the federal deficit by $256 billion.
He also argued his state was being shortchanged.
“Louisiana will only receive $1.1 billion in new money over 10 years, or about $110 million a year. That is less than 10% of the $12 billion that Democratic Senator [Chuck] Schumer will get for a single tunnel in New York.”
With $550 billion in new federal spending—the rest is earmarked to continue existing programs past their expiration date at the end of September—the $1 trillion bipartisan bill passed by the Senate 69-30 in August is huge even by congressional standards.
It would grant $110 billion for roads, bridges and other surface transportation projects, $25 billion for airports, $66 billion for rail and $39 billion for public transit. It includes $65 billion for expanding high-speed internet access, and $50 billion for resilience efforts: hardening storm protection, fighting against climate-change-induced weather damage and shoring up water storage facilities for the parched West. The resilience portion also includes funds that would beef up cybersecurity, mitigate coastal erosion and invest in weatherization.
A 2021 report by the American Society of Civil Engineers, which performs an annual survey of American roads, bridges and other transportation fixtures, gives the nation a C-minus grade on infrastructure overall—but that’s up from 2017’s D-plus. The group said the improvement is because of, among other factors, 37 states raising their gas tax to fund critical transportation investments since 2010, and 98% of local infrastructure ballot initiatives passing in November 2020.
While there appears to be bipartisan support in the House for the infrastructure legislation, liberal Democrats are insisting that the legislation be tied to a separate bill that would fund many social programs that they say are just as important to the nation’s well-being as roads and bridges. That bill, with a price tag of $3.5 trillion, includes enhancements to Medicare and Medicaid, universal pre-kindergarten, child care subsidies, free community college, expansion of the child tax credit and paid family and medical leave.
The social policy bill is unlikely to get Republican support, leaving Democrats squabbling among themselves. U.S. Senator Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) has emerged as one stumbling block, saying he won’t support a social policy bill that big because of concerns about increasing the federal deficit.
While the arguing over the larger bill continues, state officials continue to push for the infrastructure money. In a statement following the Senate’s passage of the bill, the National Governors Association underscored its support for the effort and urged Congress to complete action swiftly.
“We urge Congress to capitalize on this rare bipartisan agreement to deliver a transformative infrastructure bill to the American people,” said NGA Chair Asa Hutchinson, Republican of Arkansas, and Vice Chair Phil Murphy, Democrat of New Jersey.
Effects of Climate Change
In New Jersey, Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D) said the storm’s destruction in his state “opened a lot of eyes” to the devastating effects of stronger storms brought on by climate change. “You don’t have this many [climate change] deniers anymore. The West Coast is burning, and the East Coast is drowning. I don’t even hear many of my Republican friends denying what’s going on.”
Sweeney, 63, said he’s seen a lot of inclement weather in New Jersey over the years, but the destructive storms are getting worse.
“I’ve never seen this in my lifetime,” he said in a phone interview. “It leveled homes, it wiped out farms.” In Gloucester County, where he was once the top county official, the small city of Wenonah is known as “tree city” because of its vast canopy of century-old trees. It saw its foliage flattened “on every single block in every single direction,” Sweeney said.
He said the storm that hit his state and killed 27 people there gave lawmakers in Washington, D.C., who are “talking about … [hardening infrastructure] the best example of why it needs to be done.”
Murphy has been in regular communication with Biden, congressional leaders and the state’s congressional delegation to push for the infrastructure money, the governor’s office said in an email. Biden visited New Jersey and New York in the wake of the storm to assess the damage and call for passage of the core infrastructure bill as well as the larger package.
“The widespread damage caused by Tropical Storm Ida reinforces just how pressing our infrastructure needs are,” Murphy said in a statement emailed to Stateline. “With the worsening impacts of climate change, New Jersey will be faced with more frequent and more severe storms and flooding.”
Michelle Coryell, Sweeney’s chief of staff, said her house in Wenonah had six “decent-sized” trees come through it—into the living room, the foyer and the side enclosed porch. “There was a tree in the pool,” she said in a phone interview. “Seeing something like this for the first time is scary,” she said.
Coryell said the county and the state worked with the small city to get power back on and clear debris. All aspects of government, including federal officials, need to work together in a situation like this, she said.
If there’s anything good that came out of the storm, she said, it’s that “the levels of government can work together and coordinate and have a plan in place for situations like this that can happen.”
Elaine S. Povich covers consumer affairs for Stateline, which first published this story Sept. 20, 2021. Stateline is an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts. Used with permission.