China was struck by a historically unprecedented snow storm last week. Just the sheer amount of snow completely paralyzed all types of transportation, ground and air. Power lines were snapped, cutting power to tens of millions of people. Power was cut so that a significant portion of Chinaâ€™s railroad system was powerless to move people and supplies. What made this even worse was the timing, which coincided with the major holiday of the year, the Chinese New Year. More than 200 million people travel on this holiday. When a large percentage of these people finally reached the train stations they found them without power and without trains.
There were many images that made me think of Katrina. Pictures of vast amounts of people jammed together in large numbers, shivering in the cold with no place to go made me think of vast amounts of people clinging to high ground or crowded into shelters.. Thousands of people, mostly military actually using snow shovels to clear major highways as there is no large snow removal equipment made me think of small boats with outboard motors rescuing people and animals from flood waters. Leaders of the country, fearful of rioting and unrest actually found their way to train stations to try to calm the teeming millions with megaphones.
I do not have enough information to determine whether the government reacted with appropriate speed and compassion. They probably did. That is where the comparison between this snow storm and Katrina in not appropriate. The incompetence of the Bush Administration (yes I know that is redundant) and its flyby and photo op leader became part of the outrage in America in the hours, day, weeks, months and now years after Katrina slammed into New Orleans. That is not the subject of this column. What is the subject is the absolute need for humanity to realize how inadequate the physical infrastructures that support our existence actually are. We humans often think that we have â€˜conqueredâ€™ nature. Hah!
It wasnâ€™t just that Katrina was a force 4 hurricane when it hit New Orleans that caused the destruction, it was the fact that the levee system that was supposed to protect the city was discovered to be totally inadequate to do what they were constructed to do. In the post analysis it was discovered that the levee system was poorly engineered, poorly constructed and misleadingly represented as adequate to protect a coastal city that sits below sea level. It was designed and constructed by the Army Corp of Engineers. I had always thought that name had the ring of military competence to it. It wasnâ€™t until Katrina that I realized that this group has nothing to do with the Army. Rather it is a civilian group of engineers that represent American public engineering prowess. Do you think that the Netherlands, a country that largely is below sea level, would want us to export our American know how to them?
The debate about the future of New Orleans should first be about whether a levee system can be constructed that can protect the city against another force 4 hurricane. Everything else is secondary. Why rebuilt a city that sits below sea level if it is unprotected against a predictable weather occurrence? Our lives, our culture, our economy are all to some degree based upon the foundation of a secure, state of the science infrastructure. The infrastructure of the U.S. is one of the major issues we must confront as a nation. Most of it has been constructed 75 to 100 years ago. Across the country bridges collapse, water mains explode, roads collapse and the electric grid is incapable of efficient storing and moving energy generated from alternative sources of energy.
The snow storm that hit China last week was admittedly a historically rare one. The country is unprepared to deal with such weather. Yet we have all come to understand that in this time of global warming, aberrational weather is now becoming the new normal. What really took down the country for almost a week was the fact that the electric grid was inadequate, that the economy is 80% powered by coal, that the greatest demand for energy is in the countryâ€™s east but the vast amount of the coal is mined in the west. Therefore with no rail transport, there was no way to move fossil fuel to where it was needed. Of course one of the reasons that China has become such an emerging economic superpower, itsâ€™ vast population of 1.3 billion, is one of the reasons this snow disaster was so huge. In New Orleans there were hundreds of thousands of people displaced. In China there were hundreds of millions of people stranded and freezing.
As humanity faces the new challenges of the Shift Age, it is imperative that the entire global infrastructure on which our culture, society and economy is based, be looked at with clear eyes toward the future. We donâ€™t need to just repair our national and global infrastructure; we must reinvent it to better reflect our new energy future, our close to 7 billion humans, our growing electronic connectedness and the fact that the unexpected and unpredictable are now expected and predictable. We are entering a new age of transformation and change and we cannot accept that the infrastructures of times long gone by can any longer be thought of as acceptable and reliable.