Investing in Infrastructure Worth Every Penny

By Mitch Landrieu

Federal levees a great return on infrastructure investment.” That’s one possible headline from Hurricane Ida, a major category 4 hurricane that made landfall as the most powerful hurricane to hit Louisiana since the 1850s. 

Hurricane Ida’s economic impact on New Orleans and the rest of the country would have been worse if not for the nearly $15 billion investment in levees and flood protection made after Hurricane Katrina. The difference in damage estimates and economic loss is staggering. The global insurance firm, Swiss Re, estimates economic losses from Katrina would be $200 billion in today’s dollars. However, early Ida estimates, while still significant, are one-tenth of Katrina (in the $20-30 billion range), all because the flood protection and risk reduction systems did what they were designed to do. 

Ida showed us plenty of other examples of the glaring need for federal investment in infrastructure, especially as we respond to climate change.   

Look at the energy grid failure leaving nearly 1 million New Orleans area residents without power for more than a week in sweltering heat. Why not bury the power lines? It costs 10 times more than putting up new poles in a place where the poor would be disproportionately overburdened with that cost. So burying the lines would require federal investment.  Disaster aid and the Biden infrastructure bill may provide some opportunities, with $73 billion set aside to help fortify the nation’s aging power grid, but that’s not nearly enough for this type of needed investment across the country. 

Need more evidence? Look at the flooding in St. John the Baptist Parish. Residents have been waiting for more than 30 years for a needed levee extension. Just weeks before Hurricane Ida produced another major flood, officials finally broke ground on the $760 million federal and state funded project.

Another example — Louisiana’s important coastline.The barrier islands and marshes create a layered defense from major storms. The eroding and weakened coast, through no fault of the folks here, is one reason why Hurricane Ida remained so strong so far inland. Louisiana has a $50 billion coastal restoration plan underway, one of the largest climate adaptation and mitigation projects on the planet, but the plan needs fast-tracking and additional revenue streams.  

These are but a few examples of infrastructure uniquely suited for federal investments. There are more examples of shared infrastructure needs – broadband, major roadways, and water systems. Federal government exists to provide basics for the collective when local governments, individuals and families have done all they can. This is why governments pave roads rather than leave it to each person in front of their own property.   

Simply put, invest now to save later.  Washington may be confused, but the rest of us get it. We are impacted each and every day. No dollar amount is too high given what infrastructure deficits we have today and how much more difficult climate change will make life for all of us in the coming decades. 

It’s no secret that with climate change, weather patterns are becoming less predictable and more severe. Since Katrina and Rita in 2005, extreme weather events have caused more than $500 billion in damage. Nearly 1 in 3 Americans have been impacted by a weather disaster over the past several months. State and local governments are doing all they can, responding to the need for imagining and planning for a more resilient infrastructure. Every federal competition, from HUD’s national disaster resilience competition to formula funding from FEMA have far more monetary requests than money to dish out. Piecemeal approaches and temporary patches are not going to cut it. 

The current debates about major federal investments in our shared infrastructure have gotten bogged down on “process” or size or even whether inflation is “transitory.” These are really side issues at this point. We need to be able to do big things as a country again. We all do better when we make lasting, sustainable investments. Collective infrastructure investments are essential to better prepare us for the inevitable shocks coming our way. 

Republican Senator Bill Cassidy noted, “If our society has not learned that making a major investment upfront to avoid the tentative repairs on the back end, if we have not learned that, my gosh, we’re not going to learn anything. If all you do is slapdash a Band-Aid on top of what you had before, you get the same results.”

In a democracy, debates are necessary. But let’s not debate whether investing massive amounts in infrastructure is necessary. Look no farther than our early lessons from Hurricane Ida for why now is the time to go big and go fast. 

Mitch Landrieu is the former mayor of New Orleans, president of the US Conference of Mayors and Lieutenant Governor of Louisiana. He founded and leads E Pluribus Unum, a nonprofit organization focused on advancing racial and economic equity in the south.