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Disasters Pound US Infrastructure

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

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Mother Nature’s summertime triple whammy—record heat, followed by an earthquake and hurricane—has left billions of dollars in infrastructure damage in just a few short weeks.

Broken highways in Oklahoma, drought-induced water main breaks in Texas, shaky nuclear reactors in Virginia, cracking landmarks in Washington DC, and dozens of washed-out bridges in New York, New Jersey and Vermont are all evidence of nature’s toll from the Summer of 2011.

With rescue efforts still underway across floor-isolated areas of Upstate New York, New Jersey and Vermont, it is too soon to know the full scope of the damage—much less, the cost of rebuilding.

 Quechee Covered Bridge

 Josh Compton / iReport

Like so many of Vermont’s 114 covered bridges—the greatest concentration of covered bridges in the United States—the Quechee Covered Bridge took a direct hit from Irene.

Estimates are that Irene will soon rank among the nation’s top 10 most expensive natural disasters.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has already put the tab for his state alone at more than $1 billion.

And that’s on top of the pre-existing $2 trillion-plus national tab previously estimated for repairs over five years.

Here’s a look at what Mother Nature has dished out this summer and the rebuilding it is likely to spur:

Houston: Leaks, Leaks Everywhere

Historic drought and record temperatures have made mincemeat of Houston’s water mains this summer. The pace of breaks in water mains is four to five times normal, and city crews cannot keep up.

As of August 25, the city had repaired 5,014 water main breaks this year. Crews are making about 100 repairs each day.

“On a normal, bad summer day, I have 200,” Houston Mayor Annise Parker told KTRK-TV this week. The city now has more than 1,000 breaks, “and I just don’t have enough crews. We’re running every crew we have nights and weekends. We have all the private sector crews we have, but there are other problems that are going to come.”

These are not small drips, either. On Wednesday (Aug. 31), an SUV fell into a highway hole opened up by a water main break.   So far, water and sewer rate hikes from last year are paying for the repairs, but it is not known how long that money will last. Meanwhile, the heat is also causing potholes, roads to buckle and dead trees to fall.

Oklahoma:  Buckled Highways

Burst pipes and buckled roads have also plagued Oklahomans this summer. Record temperatures throughout the nation’s mid-section—including dozens of 100-degree-plus days—are fracturing roads and bridges.

In downtown Oklahoma City, two lanes of a major interstate were closed temporarily after buckling on a bridge caused steel expansion joints to rise, damaging cars as they passed over. In Tulsa, a hole opened in the pavement of a highway bridge, and a section of U.S. 75 in a nearby town buckled. In Enid, asphalt at a major intersection along U.S. Highway 412 buckled one torrid Saturday night in July.

 Heat-buckled pavement

 OK Turnpike Authority

Heat-buckled pavement in Oklahoma made a two-foot ramp that launched a motorcyclist in July, causing serious injuries.

“Typically, we see some joints that will start to punch up, causing cracks and fractures in the pavement,” Casey Shell, of the Oklahoma Department of Transportation, told KFOR-TV.

Oklahoma City Utilities spokeswoman Debbie Regan said the state’s roads, bridges and even home foundations had become vulnerable to “expansion and contraction of the soil that’s caused by the shift in the weather.” 

Virginia: Nuclear Shake-Up

Damage from the East Coast earthquake Aug. 23 was generally minor, but one area is drawing increasing concern.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has stepped up monitoring at the North Anna nuclear power plant, located less than 10 miles from the epicenter of the 5.8 magnitude quake. 

The quake triggered an automatic shutdown at North Anna, in Virginia, and alerts at a dozen other plants, but NRC reported normal operations within 48 hours.

On Monday, however, the agency said, “Further reviews indicated that additional inspection is warranted,” and it dispatched an “augmented” inspection team to the facility.

“The station remains shut down, and the company continues to review data from the quake and assess possible effects,” NRC said in a release. “No significant damage to safety systems has been identified, but [plant operator] Dominion has reported to the NRC that initial reviews determined the plant may have exceeded the ground motion for which it was designed.

“This determination is in line with NRC’s preliminary independent analyses, although data is still being collected and analyzed to determine the precise level of shaking that was experienced at key locations within the North Anna facility.”

Dominion had said earlier that the plant could withstand a quake of magnitude 5.9 to 6.1

Irene’s Wrath

In the Northeast and New England, the full effects of Hurricane Irene’s destruction are not yet known. Vast areas show smashed bridges, sunken roads and nothing but water for miles.

In Vermont, which has the nation’s greatest concentration of covered bridges, bridges that had lasted more than a century were demolished in a day. Twelve towns in the state remain unreachable by roads obliterated by the storm.

Chris Cole, of the state Agency of Transportation, said crews were still gathering information about the conditions of bridges and roads. Initially, the storm forced the closure of 263 state and local roads and damaged or destroyed more than 25 state bridges, and state transportation officials said they expected the number to rise.

 Washed-out bridge


Massive flooding from Hurricane Irene has destroyed bridges and roads throughout northern New Jersey, Upstate New York and Vermont.

In New York, 22 state bridges have been closed due to flood damage. On Wednesday, President Obama announced a federal disaster declaration for eight counties in Upstate New York.

The declaration cleared the way for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to pay 75 percent of cleanup costs, with state and local governments footing the balance. The problem: FEMA has less than $800 million left in its disaster aid budget for this year, officials say.

Hidden Damage

Not all of the damage that must be fixed is either apparent or immediate. Some of it will grow over time, and often out of sight.

Emergency bridge closings have been reported nationwide this summer, due to the effects of age and weather.

 Stillwater Bridge corrosion


Corrosion, accelerated by the elements, has eaten through steel beams on Minnesota’s Stillwater lift bridge this summer.

In Minnesota, weight limits were drastically reduced and emergency repairs ordered on the 80-year-old Stillwater lift bridge after an inspection showed four areas with advanced corrosion and deterioration to steel beams. Officials said the summer’s extreme heat had accelerated the wear and tear of aging.

Refineries Rebound

The oil and gas industry was still taking stock of damage to refineries and offshore operations, but there were no early reports of major damage. Most refineries and fuel shippers had braced for the storm, and ConocoPhillips made a controlled shutdown of its refinery in Linden, NJ.

The result was relatively minor power outages and water buildups that temporarily reduced production at some operations, Dow Jones reported.

By late Wednesday, however, pipelines and oil-vessel traffic were reported nearly back to normal.


Tagged categories: Bridges; Concrete; Corrosion; Disasters; Infrastructure; Nuclear Power Plants; Roads/Highways

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