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America's GPA: D+
Estimated Investment Needed by 2020:
$3.6 Trillion

White House Holds Summit to Discuss Disaster Financing and Resilient Recovery

August 3rd, 2016 | By: Whitford Remer

On Wednesday the White House hosted a Forum on Smart Finance for Disaster Resilience to “highlight innovations in disaster mitigation and resilience finance, including emerging public-private collaborations with banking, insurance, and financial services sectors.” According to NOAA the U.S. has sustained 196 weather and climate disasters since 1980 where overall damages/costs reached or exceeded $1 billion. The total cost of these 196 events exceeds $1.1 trillion. Flooding alone caused for $260 billion in damages from 1980 to 2013. Just this week a 1-in-1,000-year flood event caused significant damage and tragic loss of life in the historic town of Ellicott City, Maryland. West Virginia, Texas, Illinois and South Carolina have all experienced significant flood events in the last three years. As the federal government, insurance companies and local recovery programs assist these communities, it’s important to consider tools that can be used to help reduce similar losses in the future. Resilient design standards, changes to insurance policies, and green bonds were all topics of discussion at the White House event. The idea of resilient recovery has become more common following Hurricane Sandy in 2012 when high wind and coastal storm surge devastated the Northeast at a cost of $67 billion. Redefining the role of the federal government in disaster recovery, properly balancing risk for private insurers and encouraging home owners to strengthen their homes (see the FORTIFIED Program) are all good starts. Key to ensuring that infrastructure is built safe and strong lies with the engineers who design it. However, the engineering profession has for too long relied on historical data for its design parameters, when a paradigm shift is needed to design for future conditions. With more than 50 percent of Americans living in coastal counties, key infrastructure (e.g. ports and energy facilities) and evacuation routes are increasingly vulnerable to impacts like higher sea levels, storm surges, and flooding. Inland communities face similar problems of riverine flooding, drought and forest fire. While there’s no one right answer, the White House forum demonstrated it doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom. With the right policies and building codes in place, combined with emergency planning, people can live and safely and comfortably in their community. The Department of Housing and Urban Development offers resources to help guide communities in the financing of high performing infrastructure.  The days of free unhinged disaster response funds are likely behind us, and requiring communities to build stronger will keep us safer and ultimately save money and lives in the long run.

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White House Summit on Resilience

May 12th, 2016 | By: Infrastructure Report Card

An important aspect of rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure is resiliency. While Congress has been hit or miss on infrastructure issues this Congress, yes on Surface Transportation, not so much on resilience and building sciences, the White House has recently begun to place more emphasis on resiliency. Highlights of the White House emphasis include a February 2nd White House Summit on Earthquake Resilience and the related Executive Order entitled Establishing a Federal Earthquake Risk Management Standard for Federal buildings; the Presidential Proclamation establishing May as Building Safety Month; and this week’s Conference on Resilient Building Codes. While these efforts will not have the impact of a major new initiative or Congressional approved programs, and comes with no real additional funding, these events do serve to use the White House’s “bully pulpit” to highlight the increasing natural hazards risks and the importance of resilience and buildings codes in mitigating these risk. The development of standards, model building codes, and the local and state adoption as the building code are largely outside of Federal authority. The Federal government does have a role, as funder of research, as coordinator of technology transfer and knowledge dissemination, and as a cheerleader in rallying the many players involved. The American Society of Civil Engineers is supportive of the White House effort and played a major role this week’s conference, which focused on the critical role codes and standards play in achieving a resilient nation. ASCE joined with other groups representing standard developers, code officials, scientist, insurers, local governments, federal agencies and industries, to share insights, recent successes in developing resilient building codes, and perhaps more challenging, encourage their adoption nationwide. The Society had two representatives at this week’s event: Richard Wright, Ph.D, NAE, Dist.M.ASCE, Chair of the ASCE Committee on Adaption to a Changing Climate, who participated in a panel addressing Climate Change and the Implications for Buildings and James Rossberg, PE, F.SEI, M.ASCE, ASCE’s Managing Director of Engineering Programs, who joined a panel on Resilience in the Codes and Standards Community.  Watch the video of the conference here. In the absence of Congressional action on such pending issues as the reauthorization of the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP), reauthorization of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the passage the National Mitigation Investment Act, cheerleading from the White House is, at least, trying to push the nation in the right direction.

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Historic Agreement Reached in Paris to Reduce Global Climate Emissions

December 17th, 2015 | By: Whitford Remer

This week more than 190 countries adopted the most ambitious climate change agreement in history.  The Paris Agreement sets up a long-term framework to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions and should keep global temperature rise below the 2 degrees Celsius tipping point. Implications for infrastructure and the civil engineering profession are profound: the plan will drive private investment in renewable energy generation and distribution, facilities generating the dirtiest sources of fossil fuel will be decommissioned, and billions have been pledged on adapting infrastructure and communities to extreme weather events and sea-level rise. For two weeks, top diplomatic negotiators from around world worked frantically to reach the Paris Agreement. There were times that major differences between U.N. super weights the United States and China almost plummeted the deal. The sticking point: how much developed countries would help (i.e. pay) for developing countries to comply with new emissions requirements and assist with climate change impacts already being felt. During the talks, Secretary John Kerry announced the U.S. would double its commitment to climate adaptation grants for developing countries. The U.S. entered the talks with advantages and disadvantages. Earlier this year, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released the Clean Power Plan (CPP), which will require states across the U.S. to develop carbon reduction plans. In that regard, the U.S. already had a jumpstart on reductions back home. But with the CPP engrossed in court battles, combined with the Republican controlled Congress U.S. negotiators had to strike important balances in the final Agreement. Chief among those: ensuring the agreement was not called a “treaty,” which would require ratification by the Republican controlled Senate. In the end, the U.S. got almost everything they wanted from the deal. While the legal path for the CPP remains unclear, one thing that’s certain is that the energy industry in the U.S. is undergoing a radical shift. This presents an exciting future of building new renewable energy infrastructure and rethinking the way we protect coastal and inland communities from extreme weather and sea level rise.

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ASCE Provides Expertise at Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Academies

August 4th, 2015 | By: Whitford Remer

Whit Remer, ASCE Government Relations staff, Sam Carter, Rockefeller Foundation, bill Wallace, ASCE Member, Jessie Handforth Kome, HUD

Whit Remer, ASCE Government Relations staff, Sam Carter, Rockefeller Foundation, Bill Wallace, ASCE Member, Jessie Handforth Kome, HUD

Each year the federal government spends billions of dollars rebuilding infrastructure following natural disasters. As we approach the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which cost the federal government $98 billion, and three-year anniversary of Superstorm Sandy, which cost $41 billion, federal agencies are beginning to rethink the way government responds to disaster. Prompted in part by Superstorm Sandy, in 2013 Congress passed the $49 billion Disaster Relief Appropriations Act (Public Law 113-2). The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) received $16 billion in Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) from the Act. Congress directed the funds to be used in the most “impacted and distressed areas” that experienced a qualifying natural disaster from 2011-2013. In an attempt to break free from the federal aid cycle of rebuilding back the same way, HUD decided to make $1 billion of the grant money available through a competitive grant process called the National Disaster Resilience Competition (NDRC). While all government grants are competitive, HUD raised the stakes by teaming up with the Rockefeller Foundation to provide teams applying for a piece of the $1 billion with resources to bolster the strength of their application. The Rockefeller Foundation has a mission to help communities build more resilient and they saw the HUD competition as a great platform and partner in the federal government. Resilience—Rockefeller argues—helps communities better prepare for, respond to and transform from disruption. The Foundation takes a much broader view of resilience than that of the traditional civil engineer who typically associates the term with stronger and longer lasting infrastructure—often developed through a rigorous full life cycle cost analysis. Through the NDRC, HUD and Rockefeller are seeking to make grants available for projects that showcase resilience not only via long lasting adaptable infrastructure, but also in jobs training programs, renewable energy projects, environmental stewardess and broader socially inclusive benefit to cost ratios. To ensure grant applicants put forth the best projects and programs possible for HUD funding, Rockefeller Foundation is providing capacity-building opportunities for the teams. NDRC is split into two phases; the first phase required a team or “jurisdiction” to submit a concept of resiliency in their community (jurisdictions consisted of states, counties/parishes and cities). In July HUD announced 40 jurisdictions had been selected to move to Phase II. In this phase, teams will submit specific projects or programs for funding to HUD. To help teams prepare strong applications, Rockefeller Foundation organized two workshops in the form of “resiliency academies” and highly encouraged teams to take advantage of the nearly 100 subject matter experts Rockefeller was providing. ASCE was invited to provide expertise at both resilience academies Rockefeller held in July. Amazingly all 40 jurisdictions spent the time and resources to send representatives to the Denver or Chicago academies to meet with economists, community leaders, environmental scientists, engineers and designers to discuss their project and program in detail and provide critical feedback to maximize and leverage the effectiveness of each idea. Teams have until October to put together an application that wows a group of federal agency panelists who will be looking for projects or programs that are innovative, resilient and meet the needs of a diverse group of stakeholders in the community. The minimum grant available is $1 million; the maximum is $500 million.

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Infrastructure’s Latest Buzz Word: Resilience

March 11th, 2015 | By: Whitford Remer

Infrastructure projects that incorporate elements of resilience—the ability of a project or program to respond adaptively to threats such as storm surge or extreme weather and bounce back from disasters—are attracting new attention and challenging the engineering profession to design for a changing world. As much of our infrastructure in the U.S. reaches the end of its design life and development abroad continues to soar, this is a critical and opportune time to rethink the way traditional infrastructure is designed and built. Governments are now teaming up with private industry and nongovernmental organizations (NGO’s) to ensure infrastructure is fit for the future. Numerous international, private sector and government sponsored initiatives now require developers to demonstrate sustainability, resilience and adapting to potential impacts of climate change in the project design. One such example is the United Nations’ (UN) new effort. Last week Boston hosted the UN’s U.S. launch of the RISE Initiative, a new platform intended to bring together nontraditional stakeholders, such as the insurance industry and civil engineers to the resilience and financing discussion.  Housed under the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, the RISE Initiative seeks to ensure that infrastructure investments are risk-sensitive. That requires better transparency, coordination and information sharing among all players in infrastructure development, including policy-makers, engineers, financiers and insurers. Resilient projects may require developers to incorporate design elements that are more costly at the outset, but increase the durability of the project long-term. ASCE recently released a report on life-cycle cost analysis, which explores the benefits of considering the lifetime cost of a project, rather than just the initial cost to build it. Following Superstorm Sandy, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) increased its focus on making our infrastructure more resilient. It hosted a Rebuild-By-Design, a design competition in partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation. The competition began by soliciting the best ideas for rebuilding in the Sandy-affected region. Teams then refined projects to ensure high levels of sustainability and resilience, with winning projects receiving grants for implementation. HUD recently launched a second competition, the National Disaster Resilience Competition (NDRC) which is similar to Rebuild-By-Design, but open nationwide to natural disaster affected areas with $1 billion at stake. The RISE Initiative and HUD competitions are just two examples of the strides being made to build infrastructure more resilient, and therefore better poised to bounce back after extreme weather events.  

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Virginia's Infrastructure Struggle for Status Quo

January 23rd, 2015 | By: Infrastructure Report Card

With a state that’s growing as fast as Virginia, you’re bound to have growing pains, but none are as striking or obvious as the traffic gridlock across the state. So, would you be surprised that the Virginia Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers gave roads a D grade in their new 2015 Report Card for Virginia’s InfrastructureVA RC? While some big steps were taken by the legislature in 2013 to bring renewed funding to transportation, may end up only keeping the status quo of transportation troubles across the state whether by car or transit. Another growing pain issue for Virginia is there are a lot of dams in the state (1,789 to be exact) and the number of people that now live behind old dams has increased with the growth of the state. The majority of dams were constructed between 1950 and 1975, making the average age more than 50 years old. With an increasing population, more houses and businesses are now below dams which means there’s more risk for damage and lives being lost if there was a failure. The good news is that Virginia has made a lot of progress in identifying and educating owners on how to fix dams that are considered high-hazard, but the bad news is that 141 of these high-hazard dams do not meet current dam safety standards, resulting in a grade of C for Virginia’s dams. Growth is also affecting schools as localities try to keep up with growing schools in some areas and older school maintenance in localities that seem to be losing students and residents. Not only is Virginia growing, but its infrastructure is also starting to show its age with basic services like water, wastewater, and stormwater representing the old infrastructure bones of the cities. Virginia’s 2,830 public water systems providing drinking water to more than 7 million Virginians, and the Report Card found that many of these systems are 70 years or older and require significant asset renewal in the immediate future. The bad news is that funding is slim – from 2000 to 2012, the state only saw $200 million in Drinking Water State Revolving Funds, which is less than 10% of the commonwealth’s total investment needs. Wastewater needs have jumped 45%, and best estimates show $1 billion is needed to control overflows that pollute local waters. Also, stormwater systems are equally old, and surveys show about one-third of the infrastructure is older than 50 years and much of the remainder was built 25 to 50 years ago. While every bit of funding helps, the reality is Virginia’s water systems are only getting older each day and each dollar available is being split between trying to fix yesterday’s problems and today’s. Growth and age are like a one-two punch to Virginia’s infrastructure causing a real struggle to maintain an acceptable level of infrastructure service for the state. Virginia’s C- infrastructure shows the Commonwealth is barely maintaining the status quo, and without significant change, it will be a struggle to maintain even the current gridlock of roads and frequent water pipe breaks without new solutions. In the Report Card, they give 3 solutions to raise Virginia’s grades: 1. Increase Leadership in Infrastructure Renewal: Virginia’s infrastructure is the responsibility of all our leaders. We need bold leadership and a vision for how strategic infrastructure investment can improve the current status quo. 2. Promote Sustainability and Resilience: Today’s infrastructure must meet the state’s needs in the best and worst of times, and also protect and improve the environment and our quality of life. 3. Develop Comprehensive Strategies: Virginia should prioritize and execute infrastructure strategies that put our investments where they are needed most, according to well-conceived plans that focus on comprehensive solutions that provide a good return on investment. The Virginia legislature is just getting started, and there is no better time for them to take a second look at the infrastructure they are responsible for than now with a fresh update from the civil engineers who work on the state’s infrastructure every day.

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