Infrastructure Threats and Challenges:
Before and After September 11, 2001

PA TIMES, Vol. 24, Issue 12, December 2001
(Published by the American Society for Public Administration)

(also reprinted in the Journal of Homeland Security)

By Paula D. Gordon, Ph.D.

The word "infrastructure" can be used in a wide variety of ways. Some of the Merriam-Webster dictionary definitions of "infrastructure" include:

~ "The underlying foundation or basic framework (as of a system or organization)"

~ "The system of public works of a country, state or region"

~ "The resources (as personnel, buildings or equipment) required for an activity"

In different historical contexts over the past seventy years, different mixes of these definitions have included a focus on public works. For instance, during the Depression, public works programs were created that served several complementary purposes simultaneously: They strengthened the nation's infrastructure, addressed problems of mass unemployment, and helped restore social and economic stability to the nation.

In the aftermath of World War II, the Marshall Plan focused on the reconstruction of Europe's infrastructure and the reconstitution of Europe's industrial capacity, both of which were crucial to returning social and economic stability to war-torn Europe.

In recent years, numerous government-sponsored analyses and reports and agency and task group efforts have focused on national infrastructure concerns. In a May 1999 Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report on public infrastructure spending, the focus was on public buildings, airports, highways, mass transit, rail, water transportation, hydropower, water resources, water supply and wastewater treatment.

In the late 1980s, the National Council on Public Works Improvement had paid particular attention to highway pavements and bridges. In 1988, the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) issued a report in emphasizing ways of "improving public works and making them more efficient and productive."

In the early 1990s, the U.S. Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers developed a Federal infrastructure strategy, analyzing accomplishments and outlining issues and options that emphasized types of infrastructure similar to those highlighted by OTA and CBO. An even wider array of different types of infrastructure was emphasized in a February 2000 report on infrastructure funding trends issued by the General Accounting Office of the U.S. Congress. These types of infrastructure included: defense (equipment, procurement, military construction); transportation (aviation, rail, highways, mass transit, water transportation); water resources, supply, and treatment; public housing; public buildings (post offices, court houses, Federal buildings); military and public hospitals and clinics; research and development facilities; public lands and parks; and public schools and higher education.

Yet another way of looking at types of infrastructure is in the context of "critical computer-dependent infrastructure". Presidential Decision Directive (PDD) 63 refers to critical computer dependent infrastructures that involve critical operations and functions, including telecommunications, power distribution, national defense, and essential government services.

In the late 1990s, owing to Y2K-related threats and challenges to national and global infrastructure, considerable attention was directed toward computer technology and computer systems deemed vital to government, business, and industry. Of particular concern to some were the complex integrated systems found in certain high risk, high hazard sectors: nuclear weapons systems; nuclear power plants and facilities; chemical manufacturing and processing plants; oil and gas refineries and pipelines; biological, chemical, and radiologically hazardous laboratories, plants, storage facilities or sites; and other similarly hazardous sites. Other Y2K-related concerns included the electric power grid; water purification plants, distribution systems, and wastewater treatment plants; dams; food production and distribution; fuel distribution systems; telecommunications systems; ships, tankers, and ports; the railway system and air transport; mass transit; public safety; the health care system; and the pharmaceutical industry.

During the late 1990s, there was a concern on the part of some that potential Y2K-related problems and possible failures of technology and complex integrated systems might trigger disasters or catastrophes of varying levels of severity. There were additional concerns that such disasters or catastrophes combined with other Y2K-related failures could have cascading impacts, impacts that could affect national and global economic and societal stability. There was also concern about the consequences that regional disasters and catastrophes could have for the environment.

Since September 11, 2001, another set of national and global threats and challenges has emerged. So serious are these threats that the very survival of civilization is at stake. National and homeland security have become penultimate concerns. Subsidiary concerns include the cascading impacts that the terrorists' actions have had on both the national and global economies. Job security, as well as personal security, have been seriously eroded.

In a November 5, 2001 Newsweek article, Sharon Begley offers her view regarding current concerns. In her article, she emphasizes the following "top 10" national priorities post-September 11: food, supplies, water, air travel, mass transit, skyscrapers, nuclear power plants, public places, chemical plants, postal delivery, and computer networks.

Looking back over time, it can be instructive, as well as helpful, to see how the nature of infrastructure concerns have varied since the public works programs of the Depression and the implementation of the Marshall Plan in Europe after World War II:

~In the decades leading up to 2001, the need to strengthen and rebuild the nation's infrastructure was repeatedly stressed.

~ During the late 1990s, some were deeply concerned that Y2K-related failures could set in motion a worst case scenario of cascading impacts, particularly in light of the fact that the nation's infrastructure was already overly stressed.

~ Now, in the post -September 11 world, the concern for taking significant steps to improve the condition of the nation's infrastructure seems to be overshadowed by a concern for its protection.

A broad perspective can provide a means of integrating these different ways of looking at the nation's infrastructure. Governor Ridge in a speech before the Business Roundtable on November 7, 2001, spoke eloquently of our immediate need to "strengthen America": "to strengthen national security, economic security, and personal security". President Bush on November 8 in Atlanta called on the nation to "renew and reclaim our American values" and "engage in acts of responsibility, decency, and selfless service". A multi-pronged strategy is needed that will reverse the downward economic spiral is needed, a strategy that combines the vision of Governor Ridge and President Bush.

The following represents one attempt to identify a range of initiatives that would be a part of such a strategy. Some of these initiatives have already been proposed. Some are already in the process of being implemented.

~ Levels of preparedness are needed that will help maximize personal security, community security, and national security. Preparedness measures need to be put in place that will minimize the possible short term as well as long-term impacts of any possible worst-case regional or national scenarios. This includes preparedness measures that will make it possible for individuals to subsist for as many days or weeks as possible.

~ Current response and recovery efforts focusing on the events of September 11 need to be addressed as effectively as possible. Lessons need to be learned as quickly as possible so that future response and recovery efforts will go more smoothly.

~ There needs to be an increase in local, state, and Federal capacities to prevent as well as to address the full array of potential new terrorist acts and their possible consequences.

~ The impacts on mental and physical health that have resulted from the events of September 11, as well as from the subsequent anthrax "attacks" need to be addressed as comprehensively and as expeditiously as possible. Roles of responsibility need to be as clearly delineated as possible.

~ The nation is still recovering. This fact needs to fully acknowledged and addressed.

~ The best approaches from the past need to be considered and applied where appropriate. With respect to the restoration of economic security, this includes the development by the public or private sector of the kinds of public works projects that brought us out of the Depression and the kinds of efforts that went into the implementation of the Marshall Plan. In those areas where government does not take the lead, then the private sector, the not-for-profit sector, and the general public need to step up to the plate.

~ A top priority is finding gainful and useful employment for all who are unemployed or underemployed. In addition to implementation of a stimulus package, this can be accomplished using a broad range of innovative ways and means. These ways include providing people with opportunities for part-time work and job-sharing that would allow them an opportunity to draw a salary while looking for work in their field or while retraining when retraining is necessary. Other approaches include providing for microenterprise and small business loans, fostering the exchange of services ("time dollar" type approaches), and the exchange of commodities for other commodities or services. Innovative low-cost approaches to housing need to be explored and implemented to stave off any increase in homelessness. Job fairs need to be fostered and other opportunities for those seeking positions to find them.

~ Concerted efforts need to be made to address particular needs that currently exist. Additional people need to be hired at airports so that the added time spent in line will not deter people from flying. Additional security personnel are needed in airports, mass transit systems, buildings, plants, and hazardous material facilities. Personnel are needed in law enforcement and in cybersecurity. Persons are needed to develop business continuity plans, data backup systems, and backup telecommunication systems. Individuals are needed who are skilled in disaster mitigation and emergency preparedness, response, and recovery. Currently available training opportunities need to be more widely advertised. Major education and training initiatives aimed at capacity building for addressing challenges relating to homeland and national security need to be undertaken. A central information clearinghouse is immediately needed, one manned by information specialists. Social and mental health services, as well as health care services in general need to be expanded. More people need to be trained to serve in public health and safety roles. More people need to be trained in employment services. Individuals are needed to plan, develop, manage, and carry out public works projects, projects that will help rebuild and strengthen those elements of the nation's physical infrastructure that have been in need of attention for decades.

~ Approaches need to be developed and implemented that will encourage the temporary (if not a long term) reordering of monetary incentives on the part of all those in the public and private sectors. Attention needs to be given to the examples of those individuals in the private sector who since September 11 have announced their intention to forego their annual bonuses and/or reduce their salaries. Innovative approaches to diversifying products and services need to be explored. Ways of "saving" companies and enterprises need to be explored. Innovative ways need to be found to keep people usefully employed without resorting to layoffs. Best practices need to be followed when layoffs cannot be avoided. Business for Social Responsibility ( is one source of such best practices.

Not everyone can be expected to recognize immediately the merits of this multi-pronged strategy, a strategy aimed at strengthening essential aspects of the nation's infrastructure. The value of the strategy, however, may become increasingly compelling with time as the harshness of present realities become more and more evident. The current abundance of good will, patriotism, and constructive and creative energy available now makes this an excellent time to build support for and to implement such a strategy. It is hard to imagine a more opportune time join forces to do what we can to strengthen national security, economic security, and personal security. The future of humankind may well depend on the success of our efforts.



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