Friday, October 9, 2015

16 dams breach or fail in South Carolina. A new WPA could have prevented some of the devastation.


(In the 2-minute video above, we learn that South Carolina's dam safety program is below average, that they have only four dam inspectors for thousands of dams, and that the state spent less than $200,000 in 2013 on dam safety. YouTube link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z3Lmw_2WZX8.)

At least 16 dams have breached or completely failed in South Carolina causing evacuations, road & bridge closures, floods, water supply problems, and billions of dollars in damage (see, e.g., "Multiple Dam Failures Aggravate Dangerous Conditions in Flood-Ravaged South Carolina," AccuWeather.com, October 8, 2015).

The Associated Press recently summed up a big part of the problem: "Long before the historic floods of the past week, crumbling roads, bridges and dams and aging drinking water systems plagued South Carolina - a poor state that didn't spend much on them in the first place and has been loath to raise taxes for upkeep. Now the state faces hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars' worth of additional bills to fix or replace key pieces of its devastated infrastructure."

Another part of the problem with dams, is that most of them are on private property and the owners often don't have the money or know-how to properly maintain or upgrade them. During the New Deal, however, the WPA repaired or improved dams on private property - understanding that such work was a public benefit. Formerly unemployed workers--people who were often insulted as lazy-good-for-nothings (just like today)--preserved life and property by fortifying dams. If we had the will, we could do the same today. And with today's technology and equipment, we could do it even better.

(WPA workers building a dam, 1936. Photo courtesy of the University of Maryland College Park Archives.)

Of course, we're not going to create a new WPA, as highlighted by the fact that over the past many years Republicans have obsessively blocked infrastructure improvement bills (see, e.g., here, here, here, and here) and have also made a sport out of demonizing the unemployed. Republican Governor of South Carolina Nikki Haley, for example, blatantly lied about the number of unemployed South Carolinians who are on illegal drugs. Republican politicians are well aware that they can garner additional votes by portraying the poor and unemployed as nothing more than a waste of taxpayer money.

Democrats are not always much better. Though they don't get a thrill out mocking and scapegoating the less fortunate, as Republicans do, they have forsaken the New Deal and become a party that caters to the rich. And we certainly know now what many of the rich think of the non-rich (hint: not much). So, when the late Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) introduced legislation in 2011, to create a new WPA, he had very little support from fellow Democrats and zero support from President Obama. They probably wondered, "How will a new WPA help my super-wealthy campaign donors??" The bill died a quiet death in committee.

South Carolina should be a warning to the rest of the nation (even though Governor Haley says now is not the time to critique infrastructure - see video above). But it won't be. Conservative politicians will continue to deny global warming (to get campaign funds from the oil & coal industry), will continue to demonize the unemployed (to get votes), and will continue to keep taxes low on the holy "JOB CREATORS," in the hopes of finding a "market-based" solution for crumbling infrastructure. Who knows, maybe the Free Market Fairy can enlist some of her fellow fairies to repair and improve the nation's dams. With Republican "leadership," that may be our only hope.

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