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Building [and Rebuilding] a Nation

Engineering's role in holding together this country's infrastructure.

By Anne Baye Ericksen

Highways, byways and waterways: They connect communities, transport goods and get us where we're going. But as we're cruising along enjoying the rural and urban scenery, few of us realize the impact of everyday wear-and-tear on our local, state and national infrastructure. It's not until incidents, such as Hurricane Katrina or the I-35 bridge collapse, that we stop, take notice and wonder about the status of other structures that spot our landscapes.

Building and Rebuilding a Nation

In reality, our bridges and levees are aging, not to mention the fact that we're pushing them to the limit with loads far beyond what designers originally envisioned.

"The infrastructure was designed [based] on a certain amount of utilization and lifespan, and on a large faction, we have exceeded that in years and actual use," asserts Jeffrey S. Russell, PhD, PE, professor and chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. "In terms of bridges and roads, the daily average traffic is higher than what was anticipated. Tire pressures are higher, and semi trucks are carrying larger loads."

"These problems are not on our radar," adds Patrick Natale, PE, ASCE Fellow, executive director for the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), headquartered in Reston, Va. "We're at risk of living or working near dams or roads that have not been properly maintained. We have good, clean water supplied to our country, but it's an old system. Water is leaking out of the pipes and into the environment. When we turn on the faucet and nothing comes out, then there is a problem.".

Who better to take on these tough situations? Civil and structural engineers, of course! The current professional atmosphere is charged with opportunities and challenges for some of engineering's most traditional disciplines.

Barely Passing

According to the ASCE "2005 Report Card for America's Infrastructure," the country's infrastructure is screaming out for some attention. The professional organization assembled a panel of 24 members to analyze various studies and reports to evaluate 15 different categories, and the conclusions they drew were not encouraging.

Overall, the country barely received a passing grade with a GPA of D. Specifically, bridges earned a C while other classifications, such as roads and navigable waterways, received D markings. "We, as a nation, are dealing with a lot of difficult issues," says Natale.

But the organization didn't stop there. ASCE also calculated the fiscal commitments necessary to get the country's infrastructure onto the honor roll-$1.6 trillion over a five-year period. "Therein lies the challenge: How to encourage investment," notes Russell. "We need to think about it more ahead of time because the reactionary measurement of these challenges do nothing or cost more money."

Bridge Over Troubled Waters

On August 1, 2007, the I-35 bridge crossing the Mississippi River in Minneapolis gave way during a normal traffic day, injuring dozens and killing 11 motorists. The cause is currently under investigation, but it's almost certain that the forensic engineering team will list aging as a contributing factor.

"Our infrastructure is not as old as that in Europe, but as far as modern highways, much of our system was built during the last 100 years with many of the major bridges built more than 50 years ago," states Steven T. Hague, PE, SE, the associate vice president and chief structural engineer for Kansas City-based HNTB. "It's old and congested."

Building and Rebuilding a Nation

August 2007 I-35 Bridge Collapse. U.S. Navy photos by Mass Communication Services, Specialist Seaman Joshua Adam Nuzzo

Although bridges scored the top grade on the ASCE's Report Card, it still only ranked average. As of 2003 (the most recent statistics available), more than one-fourth of the 590,750 bridges in the United States are rated as "structurally deficient." By the end of this year, the Federal Highway Administration hopes to drop that percentage below the 25% mark. Bringing all structures up to par, however, could cost nearly $10 billion per year for the next 20 years, estimates ASCE.

Additionally, roads have taken a beating over the past few years, slipping to a D-minus on the ASCE report card. Poor conditions add up, costing motorists $54 billion annually. But when you consider how much use our highways get, it's no wonder they need repair. For one thing, they have become the primary form of transporting goods. What once was the role of waterways and railways, roadways now see more products hauled than many could ever imagine 60 years ago.

"We built the interstate highway system because of a vision by President Eisenhower," explains Natale. "He saw the value of a good interstate while he was in Germany. A good infrastructure drives our economy, but when it is failing, a crumbling infrastructure cannot drive the economy."

While all agree the need is high, and the task civil and structural engineers face is large in scale, these professionals have a few new tools in their arsenals. For example, there have been substantial advances in technology and materials sciences. "We've learned how to make the steel stronger and more durable. In terms of concrete, we've learned more about the chemistry and the reactions, and how to make it stronger," says Hague.

"One of the worst things in the world for bridges is how we do snow and ice removal," he adds. "We use salt and that is the worst thing for steel and concrete. There are people working all the time to advance materials to melt snow and ice that are non-corrosive."

"Two of our faculty members are working on a new design method, and new construction and materials to increase [bridges'] durability. They are putting in place forms made out of fiber-reinforced plastics and innovative strengthening reinforcements. Others are working on performance capabilities," adds Russell.

On the design side of the construction equation, faster analyses, computation and computer-aided design have helped to speed up the process.

"We always knew the methods and techniques, but it was impossible to do the [extensive] computations 50 years ago. Twenty years ago," notes Hague, "I would make a run on a mainframe computer for 24 hours [to get the results]. Now, I can run that same analysis on a laptop in under two minutes. We can do a lot more analysis."

Sometimes that means limiting the public's inconvenience. Case in point, Hague was part of the group that rebuilt the Bay St. Louis Bridge in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina. Although construction continues, the team was able to make major progress in record time. "Residents were traveling a 45-minute detour for a two-minute bridge. We had it open to traffic in 11 months."

Building and Rebuilding a Nation

Feb. 1971 San Fernando Earthquake. Photo by E.V. Leyendecker, U.S. Geological Survey

Perhaps the most critical asset today's engineers have over their predecessors is hindsight. After reviewing large-scale failures, civil and structural engineers can advance their knowledge base about how bridges and overpasses react to jolts, be they natural or manmade. For example, both the San Fernando earthquake in 1971 and the Loma Prieta quake in 1989 resulted in downed bridges.

"When we study that, we understand better. We started incorporating those changes and retrofitting a lot of bridges. As a result," says Hague, "there were a number of bridges that didn't collapse during the 1994 Northridge quake."

Now, examiners have another opportunity to further bridge designers' know- how. Experts have already begun the autopsy on the Minneapolis structure. "Doing bridge inspections is often a byproduct of other engineering work we do. The state department of transportation (DOT) staff or consulting engineers can be part of a bridge inspection contract; it's not a specific field.

"In the Minneapolis case, we'll find out how each component was damaged," he continues. "Then we'll go back and do the retrofitting on others."

"Forensic analysis is another field," states Natale. "There were civil engineers who looked at the World Trade Center to determine what the cause was. We know planes went through the buildings, but why did the buildings collapse? Forensic engineers looked at what happened after Katrina. What they are learning is what we can do to avoid disaster in the future and train engineers for the future."

The Power of Water

Hurricane Katrina was historical in so many aspects, but the most devastating was the breakdown of the levee system in New Orleans. The city survived the initial storm surge, but hours later the water breached the walls and poured into the Big Easy. The system as it stood just couldn't contain the floodwaters.

"You can make the case that 99% of the levees in New Orleans performed very well," asserts Les Harder, PhD, PE, GE, deputy director of California Department of Water Resources, located in Rocklin, Calif.

"That one percent that failed led to 1,000 deaths. One of the problems about levees is that their overall performance is not how it behaves on average, but on its weakest link. We have to look for the weak links."

Building and Rebuilding a Nation

An aerial view of the Mississippi River in Missouri showing the extent of the damage wreaked by the flooding as of July 1993. Photo by Andrea Booher/FEMA

Of course, Hurricane Katrina wasn't the first time a levee gave way to rising waters. Throughout the summer of 1993, the Mississippi River and many of its tributaries crested their banks, leading to one of the nation's worst flooding incidences at the time. Approximately 600 river forecast points rose above flood stage, often simultaneously, causing millions of dollars' worth of damage. In retrospect, experts admit that hundreds of levees failed, exacerbating the situation.

"Most people don't realize there are levees all over the country, and a lot of them were put in during a different era," says Natale. "They were designed initially to protect farm property, and now they're expected to protect people."

Inland California isn't typically the first location that comes to mind when you think of extensive waterways, but the Sacramento region is actually a substantial delta and home to miles of levees. In fact, there are 2,600 miles of levees running down from San Francisco to California's Central Valley protecting 500,000 people, four million acres of farmland and the drinking water supply for most of Southern California. And, it's currently poised for major failure, which could result in destruction far greater than that seen in New Orleans.

"We have to face up to the fact that we have poor levees and a [potential] flood crisis," asserts Harder. "Most waterways have a 200- to 500-year flood protection and we have been struggling with a 100-year flood rating-New Orleans had a 250-year rating before the hurricane. In fact, there was a White Paper on California's flood condition released in 2005, just eight months before Katrina."

Simply put, a 100-year flood classification means that every year, you have one chance out of 100 that the area will flood, and not the reverse that every 100 years there'll be a flood. Adding to the urgency is the fact that the chance grows greater with each year. "For the life of a 30-year home mortgage, that risk accumulates to 26%, which is one out of four. That's pretty high, and people don't understand that," Harder explains.

"But they're taking a positive approach in California. They have taken a strong position in investing in their infrastructure," notes Natale.

What he's referring to is the $49 billion bond measure that took affect this year. Voters agreed to fund a multiyear endeavor to thoroughly examine the current state of California's levee system, identify immediate and long-term goals and implement retrofitting where needed.

"Those bond measures will be spread over the next 10 years with $800 million [allocated] for this current fiscal year, from July 2007 to June 2008," states Harder. "First, we have to find out the conditions of the levees. No one really knows how bad they are, and older levees have a lot of flaws."

The state's original system was constructed in the 1800s and then updated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) in the 1950s. "The Corps took the old levees and made them wider and higher, and connected them. Still, most of the materials are not considered acceptable by our modern standards. There are seepage and seismic issues, too," he explains. "We've had a geotech [study conducted] of more than 300 miles of the Central Valley system. We're also making use of a new survey [taken] with better sonar equipment that allows us to see what the slope is like under the water in the channel."

Meanwhile, officials are also preparing for potential emergencies. "It'll take four or five years to complete the strategic planning and lay out plans for future improvements," says Harder.

Another positive note is the passage of the $23 billion Water Resources Bill last fall. Congress has dedicated these monies for wetlands and coastal restoration in Louisiana, restoration of the Florida Everglades, new locks on the upper Mississippi and Illinois rivers, and hurricane protection in Mississippi and Louisiana. Other states also will share the coffers.

"It'll aid many projects," says Harder. "In California, one project is the reauthorization of the Folsom Dam modifications. Still, that's a much smaller amount than what California is already spending."

Following the Law

So one might conclude that the news about the infrastructure-at least in terms of bridges, roadways and levees-isn't too encouraging at the moment, but for the engineering job market, it is actually quite positive. It comes down to the basic rule of supply and demand: The supply of civil and structural engineers just isn't meeting the demand the industry is experiencing.

"Engineers in all fields are in high demand," states Hague. "In addition to structural engineers, mechanical engineering is important to us. Traffic and transportation engineers are important to help relieve congestion on our roads."

Harder concurs, "We have a shortage of geotech engineers who understand levees and can predict performance. In addition to that, because funds are limited, we need program managers who can effectively manage. They're not solely sought for their technical abilities, but also their management skills."

Building and Rebuilding a Nation

Oct. 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake. Pemnant of the Cypress Viaduct exposing box girders near 14th Street. Photo by J.K. Nakata, U.S. Geological Survey

Today's graduates and young professionals also have a variety of practice environments from which to choose. "They could be educators, mentoring the next generation. Or, they could work in private practice at a consulting firm doing design. They could be in government, and not just for USACE. We have civil engineers who work for the Navy. Or, they could go down to the state government level with DOTs. County and municipal governments use engineers to maintain sanitation districts. There are civil engineers who work for major corporations. Boeing, for example, has a lot of structural engineers involved in the design of their aircraft. There are great opportunities," offers Natale.

That said, employers still want individuals who present themselves as having the best skills set, both technical and non-technical. After all, just because you might work out in the field doesn't mean you're not part of team, or that you won't have to present your findings and make recommendations. The best candidates are well rounded.

"Employers want people with technical breadth and students who have professional practice breadth. They also want someone with some basic concept of business, who will think, learn and work," says Russell.

"They have to be able to communicate orally and get their points across," adds Hague. "The way to get those skills is through internships or co-op [programs]. Or, find a mentor."

Indeed, everyone interviewed agrees these types of opportunities while still a student can dramatically shape your future career choices. Not only do they provide you with real-world experience on real-time projects, but also expose you to the many elements of an engineering career. You can further define what you enjoy about civil or structural engineering and those aspects that don't appeal as much. Both revelations are important.

"I did [co-op programs] between my junior and senior years, and that helped me decided the kind of work I wanted to do. I also found things I didn't want to do," says Natale.

Other opportunities to buff up your resume come through participation in student, local or volunteer organizations through which you'll find chances to put your classroom skills to practical tests. Additionally, you'll be able to hone your networking and leadership abilities. Oftentimes, professionals attend events, giving you the chance to tap them for advice and build your network. Or, you can step up to lead a program. These are all factors managers and employers take into consideration when evaluating potential new hires.

Once on the job, Harder suggests you seek out as many experiences as possible. He explains, "See if you can find an entry job with rotations, so you can do logging of samples on a drill rig, then rotate to inside an office to do analyses. Then get into construction, so you can get experience onsite and with construction contracts to complete projects. Challenge yourself."

As the country prepares for the next hurricane season it's just another reminder of the compelling need to protect our infrastructure. While it's true civil and structural are among the oldest of the engineering disciplines, it's upon your shoulders to continue to build a strong future that will support our economy, lifestyle and need to get us from here to there.

Anne Baye Ericksen is a freelance writer based in Southern California.

structural engineeringcivil engineeringgovernment

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