I Hear America Rotting

The deadly collapse of an Interstate Highway bridge near Minneapolis in 2007 brought a horrified nation to its feet. Then the nation sat down again.  (Photo by mtellin/Flickr)

The deadly collapse of an Interstate Highway bridge near Minneapolis in 2007 brought a horrified nation to its feet. Then the nation sat down again. (Photo by mtellin/Flickr)

She was elderly, spry, energetic, and she lived alone in the remains of a genteel Southern plantation, with its Tara-like mansion and sprawling lawns. She was not without means, but she was entirely without staff.  She was telling me how she had recently paved with flagstones the banks of a fairly sizable pond near the mansion’s rear patio. Herself. Mightily impressed, I asked her what she did with her spare time. “Oh,” she sighed, “I like to get a glass of iced tea and just sit out here and listen to the house rot.”

Which is what we Americans have been doing since 1980, when we decided that taxes are evil and must never be raised again for any reason. We’ve been sitting around listening to the country rot. Here is what we’ve heard in the past few weeks:

1. Water Soluble Water Mains. On Friday, a water main break in Hollywood, California, sent nearly 10,000 gallons of water a minute gushing down Sunset Boulevard, one of the city’s main thoroughfares. The 36-inch steel pipe was installed 98 years ago, and 57 years ago, in a cheapskate attempt to extend its life, it was lined with cement. Just two months ago, on the same street, a water-main rupture turned to swamp a large section of the campus of the University of California. For LA, just a day in the life: the city has three breaks a day in its 7,000 miles of aged water mains.  The whole country — most of whose water mains were built a century ago — experiences roughly 660 breaks a day.

And what is not breaking is leaking. Houston Texas, for example, estimates it is losing one quarter of its treated, potable water to hidden leaks from old pipe.

But LA is the poster child for America the Rotten; its sidewalks are buckling, its streets are pot-holed, its storm drains overwhelmed and the system that brings fresh water to the city needs $4 billion in maintenance. Increase the sales tax? Off the table. Increase the water rates? Not possible. And the breaks go on.

2. Rotting Roads. The video of an interstate-highway bridge in Minneapolis collapsing during rush hour, killing 13 people and injuring 145,  electrified the nation in 2007 — for about two news cycles. Then it was back onto the patio to listen to the roads rot. Since then, a buckling Interstate bridge near Seattle, a dangerously deteriorated Champlain Bridge between upstate New York and Vermont, and a suddenly tilting Interstate 95 bypass around Wilmington Delaware have done their best to drive home the point that the 60-year-old Interstate Highway system (for the most part, the best highways in the country)  is at the end of its lifespan, is carrying far more traffic than it was built for, and is not being repaired, let alone being replaced as needed.

3. Leaking Levees. A report just out from the American Society of Civil Engineers says that in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, the nation has failed to assess, let alone prepare for, the threat posed by floodwaters in an era of rising water and intensifying storms.

“We do not have a sound analysis of the potential risk to the nation from flooding,” the report said. Congress authorized a national flood vulnerability assessment in 2007, but has provided no money for it. “We are operating in the dark as we continue to underfund our flood risk mapping program,” the report said. “The public at large and many public officials clearly do not understand the risk we face.” It said much of the nation’s flood infrastructure, mostly levees, “remains in marginal condition and there is no realistic plan in place to deal with or improve these conditions.”

“The question is.” says one of the report’s authors, “why aren’t more people listening to what’s been said about flood risk in report after report after report?”

Well, they are otherwise engaged. Sitting on their patios, listening to the country rot.


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8 Responses to I Hear America Rotting

  1. colinc says:

    The ASCE’s 2013 Report Card on America’s Infrastructure (click the “LAUNCH REPORT CARD” button then the “EXECUTIVE SUMMARY” panel) not only corroborates your poignant summation, Mr. Lewis, but also adds emphasis on just how badly neglected these and other crucial systems are. However, I contend that rather than being simply an oversight, this negligence is deliberate and with nefarious intent. “We the people” are being lied to and cheated by the oligarchs as they attempt to preserve themselves from the coming collapse, aided and abetted by a significant portion of our fellow victims. Alas, I can not imagine that the latter group will ever awaken and extricate themselves from the collusion that will end the human experiment on this planet.

  2. PMB says:


    Rest easy. Don’t worry about the elites. If Climate Disturbance (I’m a believer myself, if you’re not let’s just skip it then) rolls as it appears to be most, if not all of humankind won’t be making it beyond 2100.

    Having lived through the AIDS crisis in the USA during the 80’s (and that was what I consider a dry run, at least for me and my kind) I can tell you that those who get to watch this unfold (whether elite or not) will not be having a party. Try to hold onto your sanity after watching only 5 of your closest friends, and relatives die in a very short time span. Then try to imagine that on a larger level.

    • colinc says:

      PMB, you have my sympathy and sincerest, belated condolences regarding the loss of your friends. Otherwise, no worries here, mate, and no ‘belief’ is required. I’m one of those rare birds who actually reads and understands the physics of the situation and the mathematics that describe it. My analysis, admittedly crude by some standards, shows a 95% confidence that by 2030 there will be 6-7 Billion fewer humans living on this rock and a 90+% certainty there will be none before mid-century.

      • james says:

        There are only elites when there are peasants to prop them up. When collapse hits they will have to wipe their own asses (a best case scenario, worst case they die too) and wont be feeling too special anymore.

        • colinc says:

          … they will have to wipe their own asses (a best case scenario, worst case they die too)…

          Your first sentence is correct but, not to pick nits, I am pretty sure you have your “best”/”worst” cases reversed!! Unless, of course, you are one of the servile minions to one or more of those abject, moronic assholes mistakenly referred to as “elites.” After all, from their playbook, “The best place to hide a lie is between 2 ‘truths.’ The ‘truths’ can be minor and the lie can be gargantuan. The peons are too ignorant and distracted to sort it out.” Regardless, and more to the point, “all the Kings’ horses and all the Kings’ men won’t be able to put Humpty Dumpty together again.”

          • james says:

            Best/worst case scenario from their (the elites) point of view. And isnt the average person already a servile minion at this stage? as for elites, or as you put it “elites” its all arbitrary, and anybody that thinks of themselves in that manner is a fool in my book, but you need to refer to the destroyers of our world (and descendants world) in some way.

  3. AG says:

    Having a water or gas main break occur when things are normal, is almost good news. Consider what happens during an earthquake, like the 5.1 earthquake in L.A. last spring, when several gas and water mains broke. Or the 6.0 earthquake in Napa a month ago, which caused 60 water main breaks.

  4. Bill Hicks says:

    Just want to say, outstanding post. You really summed up America’s onrushing infrastructure disaster perfectly. America is rotting, indeed.