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Overcoming America's Resistance To Climate-Proof Infrastructure


We're going to go to another issue that's having a major impact on the economy as well as throwing people's lives into turmoil. We're talking about extreme weather, the latest example being Hurricane Ida, which slammed ashore in Louisiana almost a week ago now. The storm caused widespread damage and knocked out the power grid serving the entire city of New Orleans. Ida's remnants then swept north from the Gulf Coast to the Northeast, spawning tornadoes and flash floods in several states that at this point had left more than 40 people dead.

One thing the storm made abundantly clear is that much of the nation's infrastructure remains highly vulnerable to powerful storms, even as scientists are telling us to expect stronger, more frequent storms because of climate change. We wanted to learn more about how America's infrastructure can be improved to withstand such challenges better in the future, so we called Gretchen Bakke. She is a cultural anthropologist who studies the relationship between people and the systems they rely on. She's the author of "The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans And Our Energy Future," and she's with us now.

Gretchen Bakke, thanks so much for joining us once again.

GRETCHEN BAKKE: Always a pleasure.

MARTIN: Let me just ask first. As a cultural anthropologist, what stands out for you after all this destruction we've been seeing all week caused by this massive storm?

BAKKE: I think one of the things, actually, that's most interesting to me about it is how strongly people try to continue to do what they've always done. You know, there's water running down the subway steps. And people are simply sort of looking at their phones, looking at the water and then down they go to try to get on the subway train. Or there's, you know, a giant storm coming. And there's this feeling of, like, maybe we should leave, but maybe we can ride it out. And then you see pictures of people with a flashlight in the grocery store getting cans out of a cooler that - it doesn't even work anymore. And so I think there's this incredible push to keep life the way that we know it, even when there's this kind of crashing in of extreme circumstances on top of that.

MARTIN: Is that an American thing, or do you think that's a human thing?

BAKKE: I tend to think it's a human thing. It's like, push this weirdness as far as you can away from you and sort of hold it together through a kind of - a sense of comfort in habit. And then there's a moment where it's too much, and that comes with so much emotional breakdown. So it's not just a lack of water or a lack of electricity or the inability to move from where you are or your house being flooded out but that you can't actually do any of those normal things anymore.

MARTIN: So you wrote specifically about the relationship between Americans and the power grid. So I wanted to ask you about the fact that the power grid in Louisiana and Mississippi suffered so much damage that officials say it could take weeks before electricity is restored in many places. Could you just tell us a little bit more about why that is? Is it a simple - as simple as downed power lines?

BAKKE: It's as simple as downed power lines, but it's a lot of downed power lines. It's also flooded out infrastructure. So most electrical infrastructure doesn't work very well when you get it wet, obviously, right? But then we have substations. And those are wet, and they have to get dried out. The lines have to be fixed. It's a lot of lines down. We have, in the last 20 years, put up a lot of redundant lines in America. So there should be two or three lines or four or eight, as was the case in New Orleans, making sure that there's a path for electricity, some electricity to get where it's going. And Ida just took them all out.

Essentially, what the utility is saying is, like, you cannot protect against this kind of wind storm. You can build a really great grid system. If it's above ground, you can't protect against this kind of wind storm. And if it's below ground, you can't really do that in a bayou because it floods out, too.

MARTIN: So turning to the Northeast, one of the things we saw was literal waterfalls cascading into...

BAKKE: I know.

MARTIN: ...The New York City subway system. And we saw the same in 2012 when Superstorm Sandy hit New York. Is it possible to protect that kind of vulnerable infrastructure from the challenges ahead?

BAKKE: You know, I was thinking about this because when you go to New Mexico, there's all of these arroyos everywhere. And it's just basically a ditch in the desert that carries the flash flood water away because they have these heavy, heavy rains in the desert. And I feel like the subway system now is this kind of urban arroyo system. So they're doing this great job of moving the water.

You can dump a huge amount of water on a city with a subway system and down it goes into the subways and away it goes, you know? It doesn't flood up on the land. But the problem is that's not what we want our subways to be used for. We want to use them to go from one place to another. We didn't build a bunch of urban arroyos - we built a bunch of subway systems. And so there's this battle then. Like, how do you take something which is functioning actually really well for some sort of natural cause and make it not do that?

And of course, there are sort of retrofits that you can do. You can put in, essentially, a dike system around the entrances, around the sidewalk level. Air vents can be raised up. These are straightforward fixes, but they're difficult in that there's a lot of them to do. They're expensive, and the weather is going to keep outpacing us.

MARTIN: So what do you hope people will start to think about as a result of the storm and not just this one but the pattern of extreme weather that we've been experiencing in recent years?

BAKKE: Yeah. So what I really hope for is that people will begin to look at the infrastructure that we have and ask how it can be not just turned back to what it was, what we built in the 20th century or what we built in - you know, even in the last five to 10 years and repairing that in the form that it was but instead sort of look at what kind of infrastructure would have actually survived this storm, what kind of subway system or even beyond that, what kind of mass transit system would survive this kind of flooding or what kind of electricity system would survive this kind of wind and rain just sort of soaking because the answer is not the system we have, obviously.

MARTIN: That's Gretchen Bakke. She teaches anthropology at Humboldt University in Berlin. She's the author of "The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans And Our Energy Future." Professor Bakke, thanks so much for sharing your insights with us today.

BAKKE: Yeah, it was my pleasure. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF TULPA'S "WAVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.