Those who live and watch the weather in the Great Plains know that the storms there are not singular in their effects. A lot of factors come into play.
How much moisture is locked in the soil, what the previous months had wrought weather-wise, how much runoff the rivers had been handling, and even how the volatile currents in the atmosphere mix as spring jostles with winter—all these things affect whether you can take the kids to the park or plant the corn this week or next or go fishing on the river today or tomorrow.
In mid-March, all of those factors came into play, and what looked like a land-based hurricane hitting Nebraska and its neighboring states on the weather radar was just that: a horrific and record-breaking storm that even many old-timers had never seen the likes of before. Meteorologists call such storms “bomb cyclones” and this was one of the biggest ever. The flooding in Nebraska was the worst in 50 years.
“This was a monster, no question about it,” said Greg Carbin, chief of forecast operations for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Weather Prediction Center.
And what that “monster” has left behind is opening up the never-ending national debate on how to take care of our infrastructure, which was left severely damaged in this storm’s wake. Everyone agrees that the United States has fallen behind on keeping up its roads and bridges and flood levees—even its airports and schools and sewer systems. And everyone knows the cost of fixing those problems will be huge.
In its 2017 report card on the condition of our nation’s infrastructure, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) awarded a D+ or “poor” rating. The study estimated the cost of bringing America’s infrastructure to a state of good repair (a grade of B) by 2025 at $4.6 trillion, of which only about 55 percent has been committed. Improving roads and bridges alone will require $1.1 trillion more than states, localities, and the federal government have allocated.
“It’s hurting our economy, it’s hurting our communities’ ability to grow, it’s hurting our quality of life, and in some cases, there are public safety concerns,” Kristina Swallow, then the president of the American Society of Civil Engineers, said in an interview last year. “Our infrastructure is not meeting our needs.”
That infrastructure cost—and the question of who will pay for it—has been one of the focal points of the discussion over the bomb cyclone hitting Nebraska. The cost of the damage has surpassed $1.3 billion, state officials say, according to the Associated Press. That includes $449 million in damage to roads, levees, and other infrastructure, $440 million in crop losses, and $400 million in cattle losses.
The federal government is offering emergency funding for basic cleanups, but the states and cities and counties have been left to their own devices to rebuild washed away bridges.
Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts said in interviews in late March, “I don’t think there’s ever been a disaster this widespread in Nebraska. …Obviously we’ve got a lot of recovery left ahead of us. It’s going to be a long road for us to rebuild our infrastructure and get people back in their homes.”
About 290 miles of roads have been closed, and 200 of the miles that need major repair are part of the state highway system.
“We will work as quickly as possible,” Ricketts said. “But when it comes to the major projects like our public infrastructure, roads, bridges, we’re going to need the public’s patience because it is going to take a while to get all of this recovered.”
The reason that this Great Plains emergency is bringing this issue to the forefront is its timing. The polarization of politics has frozen in its tracks what used to be a fairly simple process of infrastructure investment. For decades now, Congress and the White House have had a difficult time passing out what used to be favors to each other.
Infrastructure projects used to be a main currency of the legislative process. Call them pork barrel or earmarks projects, but Congress routinely crossed the aisle to pass this funding. Some might have been of the “bridge to nowhere” variety, but most fulfilled actual needs. It was a practical way to fix things, and a good way to get re-elected.
There were thoughts that the election of Donald Trump might move things along infrastructure-wise. Trump, after all, had been a real estate developer, knew how the construction process worked, dealt with state and local governments, and said that fixing American infrastructure was a big goal of his administration.
In 2015, even before he even announced he was running, Trump tweeted, “The only one to fix the infrastructure of our country is me.” On the campaign trail, Trump said he would “at least double” Hillary Clinton’s $275 billion in infrastructure spending. In his victory speech, Trump said, “We are going to fix our inner cities and rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, hospitals. And we will put millions of our people to work.”
He promised to make infrastructure a priority in his two State of the Union speeches. In early 2018, he sent Congress an infrastructure plan that included $200 billion in federal funds to stimulate more than $1.5 trillion in spending from local and state governments and private entities over a decade.
Yet whether because of his obsession with the Mueller investigation, the failure to replace Obamacare, or the wall-building imbroglio, neither Trump nor Congress has yet rolled up its sleeves to work on infrastructure spending. Trump’s 2020 budget request to Congress does call for a $1 trillion infrastructure plan, but it’s been scaled back from previous initiatives. In fact, it’s barely mentioned in the current budget request.
Why has infrastructure spending moved to the back of the line? First and foremost, the House chamber is now controlled by Democrats who will be reticent to help Trump achieve any success. Also, some Democrats prefer to make statements, forcing the Green New Deal or immigration rules or affordable housing regs into any infrastructure bill. Or Trump may have simply lost interest, deciding it isn’t worth trying with the 2020 election less than two years out.
The president and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have indicated they are still talking about some infrastructure deal, but most see it as unlikely to happen, especially if Trump uses the Mueller investigation against the Democrats, and it already appears he is going down that road.
“Is it time for infrastructure? Democrats and the administration are very far apart,” James Pethokoukis, an economic analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, said on CNBC in late March. “I highly doubt we are going to see anything like that. Maybe if this was like the beginning of last year, now that we are deep into the election season, I don’t think so.”
On the other hand, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana—one of the Democrats running for president—understands that citizens are more concerned over their toilets flushing efficiently than a United Nations climate change resolution.
“Like public surface in general, sewers are unbelievably important,” he said in a public radio interview in February. “They’re so important that we make sure they work basically all of the time. Which is why you never think of them—that’s kind of the point. But it’s not that different from national security. It’s like I say, people experience the more freedom the less they think about it.”
“By the way, most infrastructure is underground,” he continued. “I know we think about bullet trains and airports. That’s cool, too, but if you really want to talk about a major American infrastructure program, come see what the combined sewer overflow cities are dealing with.”
In Nebraska, water flow is what they are dealing with, above ground and below and from the faucets. Hundreds of people in Nebraska’s Boyd County (nearer to South Dakota than Omaha) won’t have water for four to eight more weeks because an 11-foot wave of ice and water took out the 90-year-old Spencer Dam two weeks ago.
Then there are the road problems, such as the one the Omaha World-Herald described: “West Dodge Road west of 204th Street looks like a pancake poured too thin, warped and uneven, with pieces peeling off.”
Colten Schafersman, who raises corn and chickens near Hooper, about 45 miles northeast of Omaha on the Elkhorn River, sees the infrastructure issue as very much about basic economics.
If the bridge over the Elkhorn River goes out, which it is about to now, Schafersman will have a hard time trucking his chickens and corn to market and silos. People living in a city wouldn’t put up with what he’s being forced to, he said in a TV interview.
“Where we go from our farm most of the time is about a mile across the river,” he says. “That’s for the people that work here too. But for us to get our goods to market, or for the people to get here for work, they’d have to drive 50 miles to go one mile. That’s what this is all about.”
Daniel McGraw is a freelance journalist and author living in Lakewood, Ohio.