A broader look at post-storm infrastructure

On Sunday morning, Newark Mayor Cory Booker (D) appeared on “Meet the Press” and said Hurricane Irene, which hit New Jersey pretty hard, offered a reminder about the importance of infrastructure upgrades.

“We’re seeing, in the city of Newark, lots of flooding and problems because our infrastructure is getting very aged, and we haven’t had the kind of investment or the resources to put the investment into it to keep our infrastructure strong and safe,” Booker explained.

The mayor is, of course, entirely right. Improved infrastructure obviously can’t prevent a hurricane, but it can help minimize damage after a storm has hit an area. Strengthened roads, bridges, and levees can make an enormous difference.

But bolstered infrastructure goes even further. Brad Plumer explained today that the power grid falls under “infrastructure,” too.

Hurricane Irene wasn’t the doomsday device many were predicting, but it still managed to snap enough power lines to leave more than 5 million people in 13 states without electricity. […]

That’s why energy writers and tech types have seized on the Irene blackouts to make a renewed pitch for smarter grid technology. This past July, officials from ComEd, the largest utility in Illinois, laid out how technology that allows two-way communication between the utility and the grid could have helped prevent blackouts during severe storms. The utility would have immediately known which customers were without power, rather than waiting for frantic phone calls to roll in, and could have pinpointed outage areas and prevented them from becoming widespread — by rerouting power, say. […]

[W]idespread blackouts aren’t just an unavoidable fact of life. Just as sturdy building codes save lives during earthquakes, better electric infrastructure can prevent outages.

A year ago, Michael Grunwald had a fantastic article about the Recovery Act, which noted, among other things, the smart-grid investments made through the stimulus. The money was well spent, but it was a modest down payment on a far more expensive national system.

But this is exactly the kind of infrastructure investment that should enjoy broad support. Even if communities which lost power after a storm aren’t your top concern, and even if one ignores the environmental benefits that come with a smart grid, the lost productivity that comes with power outages hurts the economy every year.

Republicans tend to oppose these investments, almost reflexively, because spending money is, you know, bad or something. They’re also opposed to more traditional forms of infrastructure investments — roads, bridges, levees — because they say job creation is less important than deficit reduction.

But as far as the larger policy priorities are concerned, Hurricane Irene should have been the latest in a series of wake-up calls.