Spectral Lines (October 2005)

Laissez les Bons Ingénieurs Rouler

"We got satellite Internet tonight, I still can't call anyone but I can e-mail. Myself and one other guy are running a large camp for a local utility so they can concentrate on getting the power lines back up. I'm in a small town called Franklinton, La."

Aaron Ismail , chairman of the IEEE subsection in Montgomery, Ala., 10 September 2005


Some of engineering's finest moments are borne of catastrophe. Ocean liners became safer after the Titanic sank; suspension bridges were improved after the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapsed; Soviet RBMK reactors were modified after the Chernobyl accident revealed the flaw that made them unstable. Now, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, engineers are orchestrating the drying out of power plants, the rebuilding of power transmission systems, and the reconstruction of levees. Engineers are coordinating the restoration of cellphone and Internet service to millions of people. Engineers are cooking up ingenious solutions to the countless other problems that crop up when a populated landmass about the size of Great Britain is ravaged. And they will make it all look very easy.

But once the exhausting, consuming task of restoring and stabilizing current systems is completed, the Gulf Coast of the United States will face one of two futures.

In one, the massive, hugely expensive undertaking of rebuilding turns into more of the same old, same old: bad systems, bad designs, and bad decisions jury-rigged through political bickering and bartering.

In the other, engineers are given a real say in what should now be seen as an opportunity to do things in better, more efficient, ways. In that scenario, the devastated region is brought back to life using the best practices of sustainable development and its enabling technologies--technologies that bring economic and social value without compromising safety or harming the environment.

By applying a systems approach to redevelopment, the region could become a model for energy efficiency and conservation. Solar and other renewable energy technologies could stand shoulder to shoulder with the Gulf's oil rigs and refineries. New construction could be "smart" [see "Smart Buildings," by Deborah Snoonian, IEEE Spectrum, August 2003], lowering lighting, air-conditioning, and operating costs. The latest advances in water- and waste-management technology could be deployed. Planned mixed commercial and residential land use could be practical--and comfortable for the people who live there, too. Everything that is known about engineering in coastal environments could be brought to bear on the region's below-sea-level problem. High-tech flood protection systems such as London's Thames Barrier [see "London Broil?" by Justin Mullins, Spectrum, March 2005] could be put in place. And wireless communications could be made ubiquitous and seamless for emergency disaster situations as well as everyday use.

So let's hope Gulf Coast politicians and citizens can see the wisdom of depending on the splendid ingenuity of the engineering and technology communities as well as on the many kindnesses of strangers. And let's hope that engineers from groups like the IEEE will push their way up to the decision-making table. Something good could come out of this terrible tragedy. Let the engineers roll!

How to Help Now

To make personal donations to relief or reconstruction organizations recognized by the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), go to http://www.fema.gov/press/2005/resources_katrina.shtm#donate.

The American Red Cross has a continuing need for engineers who are trained in disaster response and who are ready for deployment. For more information, see http://www.redcross.org/donate/volunteer/.

Engineers Without Borders-USA (EWB-USA) assists worldwide recovery and rebuilding efforts. EWB-USA has chapters in the Gulf Region that will be involved in rebuilding. To get more information, go to http://www.ewb-usa.org.

IEEE-USA will make Professional Activities Committees for Engineers (PACE) project funds available to organized groups of U.S. IEEE members in Regions 3 and 5, especially to help sustain local IEEE activities in the weeks and months ahead. More information about PACE project funding is available at http://www.ieeeusa.org/volunteers/pace/funding.asp.

An IEEE online community has been established to allow members to share information on Hurricane Katrina's aftermath, recruit help, and more. Join the group at https://www.ieeecommunities.org/ieee.katrina.

The IEEE recently began hosting the IEEE Sustainable Development Forum at http://www.ieeecommunities.org/sd. Online discussion topics include energy conservation, recycling, and reuse; control of hazardous materials; environmental standards and regulations; and renewable energy development.

The editorial content of IEEE Spectrum magazine does not represent official positions of the IEEE or its organizational units. Please address comments to Forum atn.hantman@ieee.org.

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