Sensors Mag

Let's Plan for Instrumented Rebuilds

May 16, 2006 By: Barbara G. Goode, Sensors

E-mail Barbara Goode

If you've been watching the news the past few days, you've seen the effects of this past weekend's rains that flooded areas from Boston through southeastern New Hampshire and Maine. The destruction doesn't compare in magnitude with that of last year's hurricanes on the Gulf coast, for instance, but it's devastating nonetheless for the area's residents—that is, my neighbors. The necessity of rebuilding our infrastructure, though, presents an opportunity.

Trick Me Twice, Shame on Me

With roads and bridges washed away and needing to be reconstructed anyway, I'm hoping that the rebuild effort includes instrumenting them. Clearly the areas devastated are likely to be in harm's way again, and sooner than we're accustomed to thinking. They were affected not so much because they were inherently weak, but because of their vulnerable locations. Indeed, as executive editor Stephanie Henkel points out, the effect of the recent rain has less to do with how much fell and how quickly than with how much land has been paved over since 1938, which is when the last major hurricane blasted through this area and caused similar destruction.

Though news reporters and locals call these kinds of occurrences "100-year floods," I think Stephanie is right in saying that, "no intelligent person can believe this particular flood to be a 100-year event." The progress, as we sometimes call it, goes on. And then there's "global weirding," a term my friend Steve introduced me to that describes the unpredictable effects of the increasingly accepted idea of global warming. The weirdness is here, it seems, and here to stay.

Ready, Set, Wait (And Not For Long)

So let's get ready. Today we have technology that wasn't available for the last rebuild—technology that can yield important information not only about the effects and intelligence of our building, but also about when the proven-vulnerable structures will be in danger again. Instrumenting isn't necessarily cheap, says senior editor Melanie Martella, but it's a strategic, long-term investment with important payoff.

Hope as I might for an instrumented rebuild, I don't see it happening now, after this storm. The area is due for more rain all week, but once the water recedes the pressure will be on to rebuild quickly. (Is New Orleans being instrumented as it's rebuilt? I don't know; I can find no reports of it.) But I hope "we" as a the larger group—that is, a nation (is the world too much to hope for?)—can take a lesson from this and prepare to instrument our reconstruction.

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