A New Manhattan Project?

Bill Keller, a former executive editor of The New York Times, has an op-ed column in this morning’s edition with the wonderful title A New Manhattan Project. Its topic? Practical ways and means of protecting New York City and its environs from future hurricanes. He’s reached out in a number of directions and collected a range of ideas.

If you plan to do any reading today, add his thoughtful piece to your list. You’ll be glad you did. The ideas include: augmenting the existing set of dikes and gates, artificially creating extensive wetlands for “natural protection,” major engineering works such as those that protect London and the Netherlands, and numerous small, quick fixes. [He even makes a gracious nod to the NTSB concept. Thank you.] He considers alternatives for the needed political leadership, and offers a nice logic for Mayor Bloomberg.

The title is brilliant, and the article is its substantive match.

Yesterday’s post spoke in passing to our national need to protect critical financial infrastructure, which, as even schoolchildren know, is concentrated in Manhattan. Safeguarding such infrastructure means shielding the physical plant – all those skyscrapers and trading floors and their electronic counterparts that populate Wall Street. But it also means ensuring that other infrastructure – the electrical grid, communications, water supplies, and those all-important subways are running. And it also requires defending the homes where all those financial wizards and their families live. But that implies we guarantee that their schools and hospitals and the stores where they shop remain open as well. As we’ve seen, all those ancillary pieces will be disrupted unless all the teachers and nurses, and truck drivers and clerks remain whole.

So, protection of the critical few means protection of the equally-critical many.

We’re all in this together. So let’s take the measures necessary to protect New York.

But at the same time, let’s remember the story of the Maginot Line.  After World War I (a timely topic for today, Veteran’s Day) the French Minister of War Andre Maginot, directed the construction of an extensive and expensive set of defense works, designed to protect France from any future military threat. Just a few years later, the Germans with their highly mobile military, had no difficulty going around these fortifications, conquering France in a few weeks. Today “Maginot line” is an icon for well-intended projects that fail their intended aim.

In the same way, natural threats know no political or geographic boundaries. As we protect New York, we need to be mounting similar efforts all along our coasts, all along the earthquake faultlines that criss-cross our country, along our rivers, in our fire-prone forests…you get the idea. Nature will always threaten us at our exposed flank. Might be New Orleans next time. Or Miami. Or Seattle. Or a drought hitting the nation’s breadbasket.

Now there’s a stimulus package.

And an NTSB analog could help us think through our national strategies for protection against natural hazards.

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