Aging Infrastructure Means Climate Disasters in the Making

July 20, 2019

Scientific American:

The federal government is ill-prepared to shoulder what could be a trillion-dollar fiscal crisis associated with extreme weather, floods, wildfires and other climate disasters through 2100, federal investigators have found.

In the latest of a series of reports, the Government Accountability Office says that costs of disaster assistance to taxpayers since 2005 have swelled to nearly $500 billion—and they keep getting higher.

“The federal budget, however, does not generally account for disaster assistance provided by Congress or the long-term impacts of climate change on existing federal infrastructure and programs,” GAO found in the 16-page report, which was presented as testimony to Congress by Alfredo Gómez, director of the office’s natural resources and environment team.

Moreover, the government “does not have certain information needed by policymakers to help understand the budgetary impacts of such exposure,” GAO found.

The findings follow a dramatic escalation in federal spending on disaster assistance since 2005. Much of that money—upward of $450 billion—has been appropriated under supplemental spending packages following disasters rather than through the normal budgetary process.

In 2018, Congress approved $91 billion in disaster spending to help communities recover from hurricanes, floods, wildfire and drought. The outflow of disaster dollars has continued into 2019; Congress has passed bills authorizing an additional $19.1 billion, according to federal figures.

The growing frequency and intensity of disasters is being felt in every region of the country and across a broad cross-section of the economy, from energy and real estate to farming and fisheries.

The report includes 21 examples of climate change’s economic impacts, most of which will place additional strain on federal resources. They include infrastructure damage in coastal zones from sea-level rise and storm surges, increased heat-related mortality in the Southeast and Midwest, changes in water supply and demand in the West, and decreased agricultural yields in the southern Plains and Southwest.

Financial exposure to climate disasters will be felt hardest in three pots of government spending: disaster response, flood and crop insurance, and operation and management of federally owned property and public lands.

Investigators noted that the National Flood Insurance Program, for example, owes the U.S. Treasury $21 billion associated with massive payouts to flood victims dating back to 2005.

Similarly, the Congressional Budget Office estimated in May 2019 that federal crop insurance would cost the government an average of about $8 billion annually from 2019 through 2029 due to worsening floods, droughts and other climate stressors.

Federal properties, like Tyndall Air Force Base on the Florida Panhandle, are also facing increased financial exposure from hurricanes and other extreme weather events, GAO said. Hurricane Michael virtually destroyed Tyndall in 2018, and its reconstruction is estimated to cost more than $4 billion (Climatewire, July 3).

PBS News Hour:

It is a telling illustration of the precarious state of United States dams that the near-collapse in February 2017 of Oroville Dam, the nation’s tallest, occurred in California, considered one of the nation’s leading states in dam safety management.

The Oroville incident forced the evacuation of nearly 190,000 people and cost the state $1.1 billion in repairs. It took its place as a seminal event in the history of U.S. dam safety, ranking just below the failures in the 1970s of two dams — Teton Dam in Idaho and Kelly Barnes in Georgia — that killed 14 and 39 people, respectively, and ushered in the modern dam safety era.

The incident at the half-century-old, 770-foot-high Oroville Dam, which involved partial disintegration of its two spillways⁠ during a heavy but not unprecedented rainstorm, signaled the inadequacy of methods customarily used throughout the country to assess dam safety and carry out repairs. It occurred as federal dam safety officials have made substantial progress in updating methods of dam assessment, in the process propelling dam safety practices into the 21st century. 

But federal and state dam safety officials have been unable to procure from disinterested state legislatures and Congress the tens of billions of dollars needed for repairs to the nation’s aging dam infrastructure.

Largely as a result of the funding shortfall, in its latest infrastructure report card, in 2017, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave the nation’s 91,000-plus dams a D grade, the same grade they have received in every ASCE report card since the first one was issued in 1998. The ASCE estimated the cost of rehabilitating dams whose failure would threaten human life at nearly $45 billion, and the cost of fixing all dams in need of repair at more than $64 billion. This year, the Association of State Dam Safety Officials (ASDSO) arrived at an even higher number — nearly $71 billion for all dams.


As sobering as the problem of dam safety is in the United States, consider that aside from Australia, Canada, and Western Europe, dam safety standards in the rest of the world lag behind the U.S. Catastrophic failures are frequent: Since August 2008, when a dam in Nepal gave way, killing 250 people, at least 10 dam failures have each killed 10 or more people. In January, a mining dam in southeastern Brazil collapsed, killing about 300 people. Last year, a dam under construction in Laos crumbled, killing 40 people and leaving 6,600 homeless, and a dam in Kenya burst, killing 48 people.

2 Responses to “Aging Infrastructure Means Climate Disasters in the Making”

  1. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    The once-trusted subsidiary of the European firm BHP Billiton gave safety approval of that Brazilian mining dam after two other companies refused to certify it, and is facing a $5bn claim in a UK High Court.

    That all-too-common sort of thing makes me appreciate my sister, a pain-in-the-ass when it comes to design safety review.

    Even the most conscientious response to a hazard, though, is insufficient if the weather conditions blow the covers off the record books, as in Harvey’s rainfall:

    • dumboldguy Says:

      Nice video presentation from the CSB—-great animation. And it was viewed 160,000 times!—-maybe someone will pay attention.


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