Recovering from Irene, and thinking about infrastructure

Flooding in New York City during Hurricane Irene.

Kai Ryssdal: I'm not sure this is necessarily a thing to celebrate, but once all's said and done, Hurricane Irene's on track to be one of 10 most expensive natural disasters this country's ever seen. New York governor Andrew Cuomo said today the tally in his state alone -- parts of which have really been clobbered -- could top $1 billion.

Andy Revkin lives in Putnam County in the Hudson River Valley of New York. He also writes the Dot Earth blog for the New York Times. Andy, good to have you with us.

Andrew Revkin: It's good to be with you.

Ryssdal: I guess the first thing to do is have you look out your window and tell us what you see out there still, a week after the storm.

Revkin: Well, I see a sad sight on our front lawn. We have a wonderful old walnut tree that has this now major crack through the heart of its trunk. I haven't bothered to call the tree guy because I'm sure they're way busier with stuff that's more important. But the roads here are truly a disaster. I live in a hilly area. You know, it's mostly the hilly areas that have seen the worst outcomes -- flooding in the Catskills, Vermont. It seems like any road that's named after either a stream or a bridge is in big trouble when these kinds of storms happen.

Ryssdal: What are they telling you, though, Andy, about how long it's going to be before any of this stuff even starts to get fixed, I mean, with all the washouts and everything?

Revkin: Well, the school buses are going to have to start rolling starting Friday, and they're not going to be able to roll in through a big chunk of this part of Putnam County. So that's the kind of thing that will start to really grate on people. In my interviews and exchanges with people in the Catskills, it's far worse out there. For their kind of people who are on islands, essentially, cut off from the grid from roadways.

Ryssdal: Daily economic life is semi-normal? Can you get to town and get groceries and fresh milk and all that?

Revkin: Yeah, that's not a problem. We have neighbors who've lost power for a lot longer than we did, including some who still don't have power. There's more and more neighbors of ours who have chosen to invest in a generator. You know, it takes one or two or three storms before you start to say -- we're always running cost-benefit analyses in our heads; any consumer, any citizen. For me, it's on things like, I finally got gutters. I was chasing, late last winter, we had kind of a heavy rainstorm on top of snow and had maybe the third flooding episode in our basement, and that was the one that put me over the limit of saying, you know, we really need gutters. And it made a huge difference.

Ryssdal: The gutters thing is an interesting analogy for infrastructure investment, right? You put on gutters and states build new bridges and highways.

Revkin: Yeah. Looking at the Gilboa Dam, for the city, this is the dam holding back that Schoharie Reservoir. And five years ago, they realized this is 92-year-old dam with major structural problems, holding back more than 17 billion gallons of water, with thousands of people living downstream. And they did some initial repairs a couple years ago, and they're poised to do a $350 million essentially reconstruction of the dam. I'm sure there are city planners who realized they just dodged a really big bullet there, and would probably have preferred that that dam have been reconstructed by the time that this storm hit. At least now they'll be girded better for the next one.

Ryssdal: Andy Revkin writes the Dot Earth blog for the New York Times. He Skyped with us from his home in Putnam County, N.Y. Andy, thanks a lot.

Revkin: My pleasure.

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