Systemic infrastructure neglect is undermining social welfare

Destabilized natural systems clearly have no respect for the holiday season. Right now I’m thinking of just two of this week’s horror stories resulting from the latest “once in a generation” (uh, really?) storm. In blizzard-battered Buffalo, hundreds of national guardsmen are still finding frozen bodies and rescuing families from houses lacking food and heat. Closer to home in Jackson, Mississippi the fragile water system broke down (again) under the pressure of hard-freeze temperatures, prompting a boil-water requirement for those still with running water, and sending the rest of the population to wait (again) in long lines for their ration of bottled water.

Both instances constitute forms of chronic neglect and underinvestment in vital systems responsible for public safety and welfare. Buffalo, hardly a newcomer to winter storms and heavy snowfalls, nonetheless seemed caught unprepared for an Arctic event predicted a full week in advance. A local advisory to avoid travel was not issued by civic authorities until late in the morning that the storm hit, after many commuters were on the road to or from work. Snow plows were likewise deployed late, in turn causing emergency responders to get stuck on unplowed roads littered with stranded cars. Why? Here’s my speculation: Like virtually all U.S. municipalities, Buffalo cuts costs by limiting overtime budgets for its own employees and outsourcing many public services, including snowplowing. Sounds like “good government” until the doo-doo hits the fan.

The Jackson story fortunately doesn’t involve loss of life, but in a way is even more tragic in its graphic illustration of blatant chronic neglect of both the water system and, inevitably, the well-being of Jackson residents. The system (and systems like it all over the USA) will continue to break down every time nature delivers another blow – and there are plenty of blows to come. The national failure to invest in critical systems is the “chickens coming home to roost.”

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