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2012 in Review: Sandy Ravages Already-Critical Infrastructure

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ENR pointed its spotlight on some of the nation's most troubled infrastructure throughout 2012 with its ongoing Critical Infrastructure series, which chronicled how engineers are grappling with some of the biggest infrastructure challenges in a generation.

They included Kentucky's Wolf Creek Dam, which is a $594-million remediation top priority for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. As 2012 arrived, work was 74% complete as contractors worked to fight seepage that is dissolving—or "solutioning"—the karst-limestone foundation under the dam. Remediation consists of building a 275-ft-deep, 3,800-ft-long concrete wall composed of secant piles and rectangular panels installed through the clay embankment and into the rock of the dam within a 5-in. tolerance.


Then superstorm Sandy hit the Northeast on Oct. 29th with a force not seen in generations, knocking out business, homes and laying bare an already older and fragile network of bridges, roads and tunnels in need of deeper repairs. After 13-foot Sandy storm surges flooded coastal regions from Virginia to Maine—but hitting New Jersey and New York particularly hard, the job of fixing the nation's infrastructure crew even more difficult.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which says it tapped many of its 3,000-plus staff in the North Atlantic Division, along with nearly 1,000 from other locations after the storm hit, would report on Nov. 20 that it had completed unwatering at 14 key sites throughout the Northeast, removing more than 275 million gallons using 162 pumps with help from local authorities and contractors.

The Corps also said that 35 debris teams assisting officials in hard-hit New York and New Jersey municipalities have removed 59,422 cu yd of debris. The work slogs on at presstime.

Workers scrambled to restore electricity in the aftermath of Sandy's destruction and the aging electrical grid across the U.S. became an even more urgent issue for policy officials and municipal planners.

But how to fund these public works when so many states and municipalities are in the red? 

As ENR reported in January, alternative finance continued gaining traction in North America on "social infrastructure" projects such as public health-care, education and justice facilities. Their key focus is maximizing long-term life-cycle value.

A generation after public-private partnerships burst onto the infrastructure construction scene as a project finance approach, participants used those lessons learned from successes and failures to refine methods.

Fracking and More Next-Gen Infrastructure

Fracking held steady as a major driver of infrastructure new projects in 2012, as experts kept on eye on the health and safety of a crazy quilt of pipelines. Richard Kuprewicz, an engineer engineer who specializes in natural-gas pipeline safety, told ENR in May that his skills had never been more in demand amid unprecedented production of natural gas and crude oil in the United States alone.  "There's all this drilling, there's all [this natural-gas] production, obviously there's a need for the construction of new pipeline and improvements to old ones," he noted at the time."Safety consultants, inspectors, regulators—they should have their hands full right now."

But more than any major development in infrastructure development, the story about Sandy's wrath—and whether more coastal cities are doing enough to plan for storm surge barriers—dominated headlines, including ENR's. As the construction and engineering worlds close out 2012, Sandy's aftermath and recovery promises to be a major theme in 2013.

To see more about the ongoing coverage of Sandy and the region's recovery efforts, visit our special report page here.


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