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The moment came unexpectedly, which is how denial is often pierced. Guntars Lakis, an architect in Bridgeport, Connecticut, had been watching his small kids at soccer practice. They came running toward him when practice was over, sweating, giggling, and clamoring for Italian ices. That was when he realized how far he had fallen. In a lush, beautifully landscaped suburban park, on a late afternoon in summer, he felt ashamed. "They wanted an Italian ice after practice," he told me, "and I didn’t have four dollars in my wallet to buy it for them. I didn’t have any money at all."
The twenty-first century has not been kind to the middle class in America. The economic nightmare that descended on the Lakis family was part of an epic change in the lives of individuals and families across the country. Millions of hardworking men and women who had believed they were solidly anchored economically found themselves cast into a financial abyss, struggling with joblessness, home foreclosures, and personal bankruptcy. Some were astonished to find themselves turning to food banks and homeless shelters. The hard times would eventually spread like a blight across the country, wiping out savings, crushing home values, and upending carefully nurtured career plans. For much of the population, the very notion of economic security evaporated.
Spirits sank along with bank balances. The Great Recession and its dismal aftermath showed unmistakably that a great change had come over the country. The years that had been unkind to the middle class were positively brutal to the working class and the poor. The United States was no longer a place of widely shared prosperity and limitless optimism. It was a country that had lost its way. By 2012 the net worth of American families had fallen back to the levels of the early 1990s. Poverty was expanding, and the middle class had entered a protracted period of decline. Signs of distress were everywhere. There were not nearly enough jobs for all who wanted and needed to work. Middle-aged professionals were being forced into early, unwanted retirement. Low-wage, contingent work—without benefits and with no retirement security—was increasingly becoming the norm. Even young graduates with impressive credentials from world-class colleges and universities were finding it difficult to put together a decent standard of living. For millions of Americans, there was no work at all.
As I traveled the country doing research for this book, I couldn’t help but notice that something fundamental in the very character of the United States had shifted. There was a sense of powerlessness and resignation among ordinary people that I hadn’t been used to seeing. The country seemed demoralized. I remembered the United States as a far more confident and boisterous place in the days when I was growing up in suburban New Jersey in the 1950s and ’60s. Kids, grown-ups, everybody had their dreams and were unabashedly flexing their muscles, ready to make them come true. The bigger the dream, the better. Each day was the dawn of new possibilities. All you needed was energy and a willingness to work hard.
That bold confidence in the future now seemed as old-fashioned as typewriters and telephone booths. There was still plenty to admire about the United States, and crowds could be heard from time to time chanting "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" at rallies and ball games. But what I was seeing in my travels was a deeply wounded society, with a majority of respondents in poll after poll saying the U.S. was in a state of decline. The symptoms were numerous, varied, and scary. The economy seemed to work only for the very wealthy. By 2013 the richest 1 percent in America was hauling in nearly a quarter of the nation’s entire annual income and owned 40 percent of its wealth. The bottom 80 percent of Americans, 250 million people, were struggling to hold on to just 7 percent of the nation’s wealth. No wonder people were demoralized.
The high rollers continued to thrive despite the recession and its widespread suffering. The head of Goldman Sachs, Lloyd Blankfein, was compensated to the tune of $13.2 million in 2010 as salaries and bonuses on Wall Street roared back from the economic debacle set in motion by the recklessness of those very same Wall Street bankers and their acolytes in government. By 2013 the stock markets were setting record highs, and banks that were once thought too big to fail were growing bigger still.
The incomes of the über-rich came to mind one winter morning as I was reading a desperate letter written by a woman in her mid-fifties to Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. The woman and her husband were unemployed and about to lose their home to foreclosure. "I pray to God," she wrote, "that we do not have to resort to living in the car which is unimaginable in the middle of January in zero degree temperatures with no gas money to run the engine to keep warm."
For ordinary Americans, the story of the past several years has too often been about job cuts, falling wages, vanishing pensions, and diminished expectations. Birthrates plummeted in the wake of the recession as couples put off having children for financial reasons. The lowest birthrates ever recorded in the U.S. were in 2011 and 2012. By then, nearly one in every four American children was poor. For black children, it was one in three. The decline in births came as studies were showing alarming increases in mortality rates for some segments of the population. From 1990 to 2008 the life expectancy for the poorest, least well-educated white Americans fell by a stunning four years. For white women without a high school diploma, it fell by five years.
One night, after I’d moderated a program on Afghanistan at the Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston, a World War II veteran came up to me and asked plaintively, "What happened to us?" His tone and weathered face conveyed a sense of real loss. He’d known a different America, having worked as an engineer and raised a family in the Midwest in the post–World War II period when the United States showed every sign that it was really getting its act together, becoming in actual fact a more perfect union. As we talked, I thought back to that era, which in many ways was a golden time. By the mid-1960s the warm glow of success was spreading like the summer sun to most of the country. The first of the baby boomers had put aside their Davy Crockett hats and Mickey Mouse Club ears and were entering college. Television was moving from black and white to color. Unemployment was low, wages and profits were high, and the nation’s wealth, compared to today, was distributed in a much more equitable fashion.
America was on a roll during those Eisenhower-Kennedy-Johnson years. Economic, social, and cultural doors were being flung open one after another. There was a buoyancy to the American experience that was extraordinary.
The nation was far from perfect, and I would be the last person to suggest otherwise. There was plenty of conflict, small-mindedness, and bigotry. Vietnam would prove an unmitigated disaster. Blacks and women had to mobilize to fend off treatment that was hideously and often criminally unjust. But there was also an openness to new ideas and a willingness to extend a collective hand to those who were struggling. It was a time in which the Supreme Court struck down one racist statute after another; a time that gave us Medicare and Medicaid, the Peace Corps, and the space program. The middle class, America’s proudest creation, was thriving, and it was not yet a mortal sin for someone running for public office to mention the poor.
In those heady, sun-washed days, described by the writer Nelson Lichtenstein as "the high noon of American capitalism," everything embodied in the great promise of the United States—freedom, equality, opportunity, and widely shared prosperity—appeared to be coming to fruition. Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote of the mid-1960s that "steadily increasing affluence seemed an enduring and irreversible reality of American life." The Temptations of Motown, who helped power the era’s soundtrack, sang of momentary setbacks in love but felt compelled to add the sociological aside "There’s plenty of work and the bosses are paying."
Half a century later the plaintive question of the elderly World War II veteran hung in the air: "What happened?" How did this proud and triumphant nation, a dynamic and robust country that served as the economic and cultural model for much of the world, end up in such deep trouble, so deeply wounded? How did we reach a state of affairs in which the outlook had grown so dim? Why was there so much suffering in the United States—families crushed in the economic downturn, thousands upon thousands of GIs struggling with terrible physical and psychic wounds inflicted in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and millions of children whose futures were being foreclosed by poverty and shrinking opportunities?
The most direct answer to the veteran’s question was that as a society we had behaved irresponsibly, self-destructively, for decades. We lost sight of the effort and sacrifice required to build and maintain a great nation. We refused to fend off the destructive excesses of free-market zealots and casino capitalists. Greed was not only tolerated but encouraged, and that led to catastrophic imbalances in wealth, income, and political power. Over time the great American ideals of fairness and justice for all, and the great American values of thrift and civic engagement, began to lose their hold on us. We embraced shopping. We behaved as if the acquisition of material goods, from sneakers and gold chains to vast seaside estates, was the greatest good of all.
The devastating wounds that have caused Americans such pain were self-inflicted. We fought wars that should never have been fought. We allowed giant banks and predatory corporations to plunder the nation’s wealth and resources without regard for the damage done to the economy, the environment, or the people. We neglected the nation’s physical infrastructure to the point where bridges were collapsing, water systems were failing, and the historic city of New Orleans was submerged in a catastrophic flood that shocked not just the nation but the world.
After so much neglect and so many bad policy decisions, we ended up with a government and an economy incapable of meeting the human needs of a complex and diverse nation of more than 300 million people.
The abiding premise of this book is that things do not have to be this way. There is no reason to sit still for an intolerable status quo. Democracy is still alive, if not particularly healthy, in America. Ordinary citizens can still roll up their sleeves and—with enough effort, commitment, and willingness to sacrifice—reclaim their nation’s lost promise. The dream can still be revived. Wounds can heal. A fresh start can be made. But only if citizens overcome their reluctance to engage in collective civic action on an organized and sustained basis. In other words, only if ordinary citizens choose to intervene aggressively and courageously in their own fate.
My goal in this book is to get beyond the din of clueless politicians and nonstop talking heads and show what really happened, how we got into such a deep fix, and how we can get out of it. Like a print in an old-fashioned darkroom, a clearer portrait of America will emerge. We’ll see the great challenges facing the nation from the perspective of the ordinary individuals and families who are directly affected by them: a young army captain who was badly wounded in Afghanistan, a woman who was driving across the Interstate 35 bridge in Minneapolis when it collapsed into the Mississippi River, young people trying to cope with staggering amounts of student debt in the worst economic environment since the Great Depression. I’ve focused most intently on four specific areas: the employment crisis, which was badly underestimated and poorly understood; the need to rebuild and modernize the nation’s infrastructure and the relationship of that vast project to employment; the critical task of revitalizing the public schools in a way that meets the profound educational imperatives of the twenty-first century; and the essential obligation that we have as rational and civilized beings to stop fighting pointless and profoundly debilitating wars.
There will be subtexts that weave their way through these interrelated themes, especially the poisonous effects of wealth and income inequality. And I’ll trace the relevant history that brought us to the present troubled moment. But there won’t be any suggestion that there are neat and tidy solutions to the crises facing America. We don’t need another ten- or twelve-point plan. There are good ideas all over the place, even great ideas. But none of them have a prayer of working if the citizenry is not somehow aroused to reclaim America from the powerful moneyed interests—the "malefactors of great wealth," as Teddy Roosevelt so memorably called them—who have been the ones most responsible for driving the nation into such a wretched state of affairs. The historian Howard Zinn once told me, "If there is going to be change, real change, it will have to work its way from the bottom up, from the people themselves. That’s how change happens."
All of the great movements in America—from abolition and civil rights, to the labor and women’s movements and the fight for gay rights—all were led by citizens fed up with an intolerable status quo. That is how societies change. That is how America can, should, and—with the proper commitment and cooperative spirit—will change.
1. Falling Apart
I am not going to die today.
Mercedes Gorden glanced out at the highway, which she could see from her third-floor office on the sprawling campus of the Best Buy corporate headquarters in Richfield, Minnesota. It was after five, rush hour, but the traffic wasn’t too bad. She didn’t really care. She’d recently been promoted by her company, Accenture, which did employee relations work for Best Buy, and her raise had kicked in that day.
“I wasn’t in any hurry,” she would later recall. “I was in a great mood. I thought about picking up a bottle of wine on my way home and maybe celebrating my raise with my fiancé. There was nothing out of the ordinary about the day.”
Nothing at all. August 1, 2007. Newspapers were reporting that the Italian movie director Michelangelo Antonioni had died. Presidential candidate Barack Obama, a long shot for the Democratic nomination, was meeting in Washington with members of the 9/11 Commission. A pair of senators, Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, had scheduled a press conference to discuss the sorry state of the nation’s infrastructure, but few reporters were interested, and the press conference was a bust.
It was around 5:30 when Mercedes collected her keys, smiled at a couple of co-workers who teased her about her promotion, and headed for the parking garage.
Mercedes was thirty-one years old, dark-haired, athletic, and known for her quick smile and contagious laugh. She had a gift for making friends easily. She loved to dance and was in love with Jake Rudh, who was trying to make it locally as a disc jockey. Marriage was a given, and the additional income from her raise would help. They hadn’t set a date, but Mercedes had already purchased her wedding dress. “I was ready,” she laughed.
She climbed into the black four-door Ford Escort and buckled up. As she pulled out of the campus parking lot and headed toward the highway entrance, there was no way to know that she was on her way to what would seem like a glitch in the universe.
“It was very hot,” she would say afterward. “Ninety degrees. But it wasn’t that humid, so when I got onto the highway I put the windows down. It felt great. I had the jazz station on and I was just cruising.”
The ride home to Minneapolis at rush hour usually took twenty- five to thirty minutes. That particular stretch of Interstate 35 West was given a small taste of fame in the movie Fargo, when a pair of characters come around a mild curve and watch the Twin Cities skyline slide dramatically into view.
“The sun was off to my left,” Mercedes said. “The traffic was moving okay for a while, but then construction work on the highway slowed it down.”
Four lanes of highway had been reduced to two, and traffic slowed to ten miles per hour. Mercedes passed the Metrodome stadium on her left, an architectural eyesore that was home to the Twins and the Vikings. It looked like a giant piece of furniture that had been wrapped in a sheet by departing tenants.
For drivers heading north, there were no real visual clues that the highway was becoming a bridge that crossed the Mississippi River some eighty feet below. But Mercedes knew very well that the river with its muddy, treacherous currents was down there.
As she approached the bridge, she could see the construction crew hard at work in the intense heat as the two lanes of traffic inched past. “I’ll tell you the truth,” she said, “I never felt that safe on the bridge, you know, with all the construction work going on. They were always jackhammering or something, and it looked like tons of equipment were piled up on the bridge. I hated driving over that bridge.”
There is an exit just before the bridge that leads to an alternate route, and Mercedes considered it. A mental roll of the dice. As she remembered, “I thought about it, but in a split second or however long it was, I just said, ‘Screw it, I’m taking the bridge.’ So there I was in all that traffic. I got over probably the first half just fine, maybe a little more than halfway. And then all of a sudden I saw the pavement ripple like a wave. It looked like an ocean wave almost, like a tide coming in. It was just up and down. I thought, ‘What the hell is this?’
“I saw a look of panic on a construction worker in front of me. It almost seemed like he was bracing himself, trying to get his balance, because the bridge had started to sway back and forth and I could feel my car doing that.”
And then, in a horrifying burst of clarity, Mercedes realized—with the traffic still moving slowly, helplessly forward—that the bridge was going down.
“I thought, ‘Oh my God, you’re kidding me!’ I was in disbelief and instantly pissed off. Fear was not my first emotion. I’m like, ‘You’re fucking kidding me! This thing is coming down and I’m on it?’ I’m thinking, ‘What are the freaking odds? Impossible, right?’
“So I thought, ‘Okay, if this thing’s coming down, I’m going for a ride, and it’s going to suck. It’s going to be bad, bad, bad, and it’s going to hurt. But, you know, I am not going to die today. I am not going to die.’ I’m thinking all these things in a matter of seconds because the bridge was opening up in front of me. Two pieces of concrete that were connected opened up, and I could tell that I was going to go flying through that opening.”
For a split second she thought she might get a reprieve.
“I was hoping I could get past the opening as the concrete was pulling apart because the car in front of me made it over, but I didn’t know whether I should step on the gas or the brake or whatever. And then all of a sudden my car was plummeting through the opening.
“It was really bizarre and surreal. I just held on to my steering wheel and gripped it really tightly and just said, ‘Here we go.’ And, you know, I think I made my anger and my stubbornness work for me because I had decided this wasn’t going to kill me, no matter how horrible it turned out.
“I plummeted I think around six or seven stories. I had this feeling of weightlessness for a moment, and even though it was a bright, sunny day, everything went dark, I think because of all the dust and debris of the bridge falling apart. On the way down, everything got dark. I don’t know, I guess my eyes were closed part of the time. It was dark, and I could feel the descent. And I had no idea where I was going, where I was headed. It was just this abyss. And I just thought, ‘Jesus, what’s going to happen?’ I just prayed that things weren’t going to smash me to bits. There was so much concrete falling apart and so much steel bending, and there were cars flying everywhere.”
Because she had driven more than halfway across the bridge, Mercedes’s Escort came down on the far side of the water. With a tremendous crash it pitched head-on into a concrete retaining wall and landed right side up on the riverbank. A minivan immediately crashed upside down onto the trunk of the Escort.
“I didn’t feel the slamming into the wall so much,” Mercedes said. “What I remember feeling were my tires finally landing on the ground and I felt quite a bounce. I had no idea I had broken my back at that point because, you know, I went right into shock. I remember the minivan crashing on my trunk. A couple of more feet and it probably would have killed me.”
When the I-35W bridge broke apart high above the river and came down in a stunning explosion of concrete, steel, and rock-pitted debris, it was more than a horrific real-life tragedy. It was a metaphor for the widespread deterioration of American society. The bridge collapse came two years after the submersion of New Orleans and four months before the start of the Great Recession. As the eight lanes of the forty-year-old steel truss bridge began to ripple and sway on that steamy August evening, it was almost as if something related to the solidity of the society itself was giving way. There were signs everywhere that the American center was not holding, from the wretched job market to the deplorable state of the government’s finances to the increasingly prohibitive cost of a college education to the steady decline of the middle class. As I moved about the country, covering one disaster after another, I couldn’t help but think that there was a great deal of denial about how bad things had become. America was hurting, and an area in which the evidence was both stark and deeply symbolic was the nation’s once-gleaming but now increasingly decrepit physical plant—its roads, bridges, drinking water systems, electrical grid, ports and levees, and so on. Large portions of those vast and complex systems, some dating back to the nineteenth century, had reached the end of their useful lives. Buried in those strained systems were important answers to the major dilemmas facing the country. Neglect, underinvestment, and denial had all contributed to the increasingly dire state of the nation’s physical plant, and that echoed what was going on in other important sectors of the United States.
There had always been a link between the state of the infrastructure and the social and economic health of the society. Time and again an economic boom has followed periods of sustained infrastructure improvement. It is impossible to calculate all of the benefits from (to mention just a few examples) the Erie Canal, which connected the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean and helped make New York America’s premier city; the rural electrification program and other capital improvements of the New Deal; the railroad and aviation systems that helped knit the nation together; the schools, colleges, and libraries that are so crucially important to the life and culture of the people; the interstate highway network launched by the Eisenhower administration; and the space program. But in recent decades, the challenge of maintaining the nation’s physical plant has joined the many other challenges that the U.S. has been unable or unwilling to meet. The human toll has often been profound, as the tragedies in New Orleans and Minnesota have demonstrated. But the social and economic costs—the lost prosperity, the forfeiture of discoveries and innovations that would have come with modernization, the myriad employment and other opportunities that never materialized—have also been enormous. Those losses have damaged the nation as surely as the I-35 bridge collapse damaged the victims and their families.
Mercedes remembered being very calm as she sat in her smashed car on the bank of the river with the van still upside down on her trunk. “I was kind of debating,” she said. “Am I alive? Am I not alive? When I figured out that I probably was alive, I took an inventory of my body. Was I impaled anywhere? Was I bleeding? I didn’t see anything. My clothes had a little bit of debris on them. I was wearing a white blouse that day. And black slacks. I was like, ‘Is that it?’ There was an inner sense that there was something wrong with my legs, but I couldn’t quite place it because there was no pain. Little did I know that my legs were completely mangled beneath the dashboard.”
Time seemed to cease as Mercedes sat in her car. Then came the sudden thought: “I need to get the hell out of here.” She began struggling to get out. She could move from the waist up but couldn’t extricate herself. “I was trapped. My legs were completely pinned.
“My next concern was that there was this hose hanging above me—I assumed it was a deicer hose—and it was dripping deicer fluid on my neck. It was burning me. So I grabbed my bag and held it up to block the fluid. Then I saw little puffs of smoke coming up from the hood of my car, and I thought, ‘Jesus, is this thing going to catch fire? Is my car going to explode?’ So I had all these thoughts about being pinned in the car and dying in a fire.
“It was eerily quiet at that point. And I’m looking around, having no idea where I’m at.”
Remnants of the wrecked bridge were hanging overhead. Mercedes had been traveling in the northbound lane. When she looked to her left, she could see what was left of the southbound lane dangling from the highway. “I could see some other vehicles that had fallen from the bridge. I remember seeing a truck, but that’s about it. I knew a bunch of people must have died.”
Mercedes’s mind slowly cleared and she began screaming for help. Behind her car and the flipped van on the trunk was another vehicle, also upside down, with a family of four inside. Mercedes couldn’t turn around far enough to see it, but she could hear what sounded like a teenage girl screaming for help for her mother, who apparently was unconscious.
People began showing up on the riverbank, first staring in disbelief, then trying to help. Mercedes would later remember that she didn’t own a cell phone at the time. “I was still holding out, trying to be the last person in the country to get one. But a Good Samaritan let me use her phone. I called Jake. I told him I’d been in a horrific accident, but he had no idea it was me because apparently my voice was strained and really high, just very different. Once he figured out it was me, he said, ‘What are you talking about?’ Rather than explain it, I told him to turn on the TV. By that time I could hear the helicopters above me, and I’m like, ‘I know this is already on television. There is no way it’s not.’ So he turned on the TV and he sees it instantly and he’s like, ‘Oh my God, are you in that? What can I do? Can I come get you?’ But I said, ‘No, I have no idea where I’m at. I’m sure somebody will call you from the hospital, if I don’t myself.”
The girl whose screams had echoed Mercedes’s was seventeen-year-old Brandi Coulter. She and her father, Brad, her mother, Paula, and her eighteen-year-old sister, Brianna, had been two vehicles behind Mercedes on the bridge. Brad was at the wheel of the Honda minivan with Brianna next to him in the front passenger seat. Paula and Brandi were in the back. Paula was dozing. The Coulters were planning to meet up with relatives for a family celebration at a restaurant in Roseville. They had inched across the midpoint of the bridge when the roadway began to shake. Brad looked around and saw the construction workers scurrying about. And then the bridge gave way. After a sixty- or seventy-foot free fall, the pale gold minivan crashed upside down on the riverbank, leaving all four members of the family dangling wrong side up, held in place by their seat belts. Three were dazed and profoundly disoriented. Paula was unconscious. She would later explain details to me that had been told to her again and again in the aftermath of the accident. There was a period of stunned silence that was broken first by Mercedes’s screams, which seemed to come out of nowhere, and then Brandi’s. Frightened and in pain, Brad (who suffered from claustrophobia) and the two girls struggled to climb through shattered windows and get out of the van. Brandi was unnerved by the periodic groans that came from her mother, who was bleeding and still trapped in her seat. Brad could see that his wife was badly hurt and was afraid that trying to pull her from the vehicle would only worsen her injuries. He could barely stay upright himself. Five of his vertebrae had been fractured. He would later recall looking up and seeing a portion of the bridge that hadn’t fallen hanging precariously above them. He worried that the rest of the structure would suddenly come down and crush his entire family.
The warm evening air began to carry the sound of people calling for help. Wrecked cars were scattered in the water. With Brianna weeping and Brandi nearly hysterical, Brad waited what seemed to him an interminable time until rescue workers arrived. They managed to get Paula out of the van but not before dropping her one time, which horrified everyone. Paula does not remember the accident, but she told me about a brief moment described to her by Brad and the girls. Brandi, nearly overwhelmed by the sight of her helpless mother, could not stop crying. "She was so upset," Paula said. "And apparently, even though I don’t remember it, I had a brief moment of consciousness after they got me out of the van. And I said, ‘Honey, it’s okay. Brandi, we’ll be fine. I love you. We’ll be fine.’ " Brandi, still sobbing, managed to calm down. The rescue workers placed Paula on a plywood plank and carried her to a triage center.
Thirteen people were killed in the collapse of the I-35W bridge, and nearly 150 were injured. It was remarkable, almost miraculous, that the death toll was not much higher. Dozens of cars and trucks fell from the bridge, and others were wrecked on the roadway. Some burst into flames. Truck driver Paul Eickstadt died while still at the wheel of his tractor trailer. Seventeen or eighteen construction workers who were about to begin their night shift fell into the river.
There is a tendency to recoil from a tragedy of such dimensions, to categorize it as an aberration, something so rare that there is no real reason to worry much about it happening again. Find out what went wrong and fix it, sure. Help the survivors and their families, by all means. Then move on. The problem is that disasters related to infrastructure are not rare. New Orleans was the poster child. There had been warnings for years that the city was vulnerable to a powerful hurricane, that the levees and flood walls would give way if the onslaught was fierce enough. Then came Katrina. The death toll, never precisely documented, was extraordinarily high, and untold thousands were left homeless and destitute. When the floodwaters receded, the city’s Lower Ninth Ward looked as if it had been hit by a nuclear bomb. Much of that devastation and loss of life could have been avoided if the warnings about the levees had been heeded. As the historian Douglas Brinkley reminded us in The Great Deluge, his book about the flooding that followed Katrina, the submersion of New Orleans "was a man-made debacle, resulting from poorly designed levees and floodwalls."
Physically, the United States is not just falling apart. It’s rotting, rusting, decaying. It’s blowing up. An estimated ten thousand people are killed on the nation’s roadways each year in accidents caused, at least in part, by infrastructure failures related to design flaws, inadequate maintenance, structural deficiencies, and aging. The near misses would make your hair stand on end. Just eight months after the collapse of the I-35 bridge, a young structural engineer in Philadelphia named Peter Kim made a stunning discovery after stopping for lunch at a neighborhood delicatessen. A heavily traveled elevated section of Interstate 95, which runs the entire length of the East Coast, was nearby. "I was with a colleague," he told me, "and we had just finished our sandwiches and were on our way back to work when I spotted the crack." Then he corrected himself. "It was more than a crack." What he had spotted through the window of his car was a terrible fracture in one of the concrete columns holding up the highway. The two men climbed from the car and walked over to the column for a closer look. As they stared, openmouthed, they could hear the cars and trucks roaring by just over their heads. Kim could not believe the extent to which the column had deteriorated. The men took photos with a cell phone and forwarded them with an urgent message to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. There was little time to lose. A two-mile stretch of the highway traversed by 190,000 vehicles every day was immediately closed. Crews spent the next two weeks making emergency repairs. Ed Rendell, who was governor at the time, told me that if the pillar had failed, if it had crumbled, the result would most likely have been catastrophic. "It’s just hard to imagine how bad it would have been," he said.
There are endless infrastructure nightmares in America. On a quiet Thursday evening in September 2010, a natural gas pipeline exploded in a residential neighborhood of San Bruno, California, about twelve miles south of San Francisco. The blast was thunderously loud, and the ground shook, as in an earthquake. An enormous fireball, thirty to forty stories high, roared through the neighborhood. Whipped by winds coming off San Francisco Bay, the towering flames became a firestorm that spread with shocking speed, destroying well-kept suburban homes by the dozens. Trees went up in flames. Cars, trucks, and station wagons burned. Streets and sidewalks buckled and melted in the tremendous heat. Captain Charlie Barringer of the San Bruno Fire Department told the Los Angeles Times, "I thought a 747 had landed on us."
Eight people were killed in the fire that followed the explosion. The pipeline that erupted had been installed in the 1950s, when Dwight Eisenhower was president, and had not been properly monitored for safety. This is a chronic problem. Hundreds of natural gas pipelines have exploded in the United States over just the past few years, taking the lives of at least eighty people. Hundreds have been injured. Five months after the San Bruno disaster, a similar sudden eruption rocked a residential neighborhood in Allentown, Pennsylvania. That one occurred a few minutes before 11:00 p.m. Once again it was an old and deteriorating natural gas pipeline that blew. As one resident described it, "You just heard this big bang, then all this cracking and banging and booming, like a war was going on."
Dorothy Yanett and her husband, Bill, owned two houses in the neighborhood. Bill described what it was like to stand outside in the dark and the cold, watching the awful destruction: "We were like, ‘There goes Bea’s house. There goes Ed’s house. There goes Don’s house.’ Then it was, ‘Oh no! There’s my house! And my other house! There’s Tony’s house.’ They’re all gone."
Bea was seventy-four-year-old Beatrice Hall, who, along with her husband, William, seventy-nine, was killed in the fire. A horrified neighbor could see Bea through a window as she was caught in the flames. Five people died, including Matthew Cruz, four months old.
On a cold morning in March 2014 an explosion on Park Avenue near 116th Street in Manhattan destroyed two five-story apartment buildings. Eight people were killed, several were badly injured, and dozens of families in the East Harlem neighborhood were left homeless. A natural gas leak, which investigators attributed to a defective pipeline that was most likely built in the nineteenth century, caused the explosion.
"Infrastructure" may be the least sexy word in the English language. But to get a sense of its profound importance, think of it as the circulatory system of American society, an infinitely complex network that weaves its way through virtually every aspect of our daily lives. Turn on the faucet and clean drinking water comes out. Flick a switch and the lights come on. Boot up your computer and high-speed broadband will take you to the Internet. The crumbling roads, structurally deficient bridges, and faulty natural gas pipelines are all part of this vital system that keeps the blood flowing and the nation’s metaphorical heart beating. It moves people, power, water, energy, finances, communications, and goods of all kinds throughout the society. It cools us in the summer and warms us in the winter. It takes us to work and brings us home again. When it’s in good shape, the country tends to be in good shape. But right now it’s not in good shape. Nearly all aspects of this vital but aging network are breaking down to some extent. An analysis of federal data by the New York Times found that a significant water line bursts somewhere in the United States every two minutes. The Gerald Desmond Bridge in the Port of Long Beach, California, which is traversed by about 15 percent of all goods coming into the United States, was in such terrible shape it had to be rigged with nylon "diapers" to catch falling chunks of concrete.
America once had the finest infrastructure in the world, and that magnificent system of public works went hand in hand with a remarkably robust economy. But now that infrastructure is in sad shape, and it’s no coincidence that the economy is as well.
After speaking with her fiancé, Mercedes passed the cell phone back to the Good Samaritan, whose name was Meagan O’Brien. Time was moving slowly, and Mercedes still had no idea about the extent of her injuries. All she knew was that she couldn’t free herself. She began to feel groggy. Meagan opened the door on the passenger’s side and climbed into the car. She took Mercedes by the hand and told her she had to stay conscious. Mercedes shuddered and groaned as she began to feel pain of a kind she had never felt before. As it increased, her fear intensified. Meagan talked and talked, trying to take Mercedes’s mind off her increasing distress. She squeezed Mercedes’s hand. She told jokes. She quoted poetry.