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Joseph W. Westphal The Politics of Infrastructure NO RECENT NATURAL DISASTER SINCE PERHAPS THE GREAT MISSISSIPPI floods of 1927 and 1993 has had such an im m ense im pact on our national pride and confidence as did Katrina. The reason was evident from the tim e the storm began to form in the Gulf of Mexico and even after it hit land: our governm ent at all levels was dazed and confused. The infrastructure and organizational structures operating for decades and costing billions of dollars were overwhelmed. This was a disaster of great proportions, taking place in one of the poorest com m unities in our country and affecting some of the m ost im portant economic structures in the land—our largest port, a huge netw ork of oil and gas pipeline and production facilities, offshore drilling, shipbuilding, and some of our largest fisheries, to just cite a few examples. Much has been w ritten and debated about this event and its effects on both the local area and the nation, and this paper is not intended to replicate that work. The focus here is on the process used to support and invest in the nation’s w ater resources infrastructure. I will describe changes that have come about in recent years and why this process may in fact put people and communities at greater risk. Our vulnerability to such disasters is seen through many lenses. It is about people and relationships but also about places and nature. It is about how we live and the structures we build to protect us, manage our commerce, enhance sustainability, and give pleasure to our lives. In Louisiana and the Mississippi River watershed, it is about levees, chan­ nels, port facilities, housing, and flood plain m anagem ent. Indeed, a social research Vol 75 : No 3 : Fall 2008 793 significant part of our nation’s infrastructure revolves around water, so the effects of hurricanes and floods are significant and often cata­ strophic for people and governm ents alike. This paper examines the politics of w ater resources infrastructure in order to better understand how decision-making processes may create vulnerabilities that potenti­ ate disasters. The m atter of politics being at the center of decisions and actions regarding a nation’s infrastructure is well understood and requires little or no verification. A long-standing and popular definition given to us by Harold Lasswell is that politics is about “who gets what, w hen and how,” and w hen it comes to deciding about building infrastructure, this concept is at the heart o f every decision. Therefore, this paper is not about proving politics is integral to infrastructure developm ent, but rather identifying those factors that enhance the vulnerabilities of the process, allowing for poor priority-setting and unnecessary and some­ times ineffective infrastructure policy and projects. However, there are things that we can be doing to address m any of the issues behind the conditions th at m ake us vulnerable to disasters, conditions th at for future generations are simply unacceptable. This paper will focus on three key steps in current w ater infra­ structure project developm ent: planning, funding m echanism s, and decision making. The hypothesis is th at all three contribute to infra­ structure developm ent that can accentuate risk and vulnerability for com m unities around the country. For these purposes, “planning” is a study process to determ ine if a project is necessary, feasible, and a good investm ent by the nation. “Funding m echanism s” refers to who pays, how m uch, and when. The nation has infrastructure that requires financial resources for continued operation, m aintenance, and modernization. These priorities clash w ith both the need for new infra­ structure and all the political and policy variables that abound. Finally, the synthesis of all this is a decision-making process that is often frag­ m ented and unstable w ith no clear set of priorities and standards. The underlying assum ption is that these three steps all work to enhance a political rationale at some cost to sound forecasting, better 794 social research priority setting and good science and engineering. In addition, we...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-768X
Print ISSN
0037-783X
Pages
pp. 793-804
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-30
Open Access
No
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