I grew up just a few miles from the bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis. We were a family that was terrified of heights. At least once a month, my father would mention how he thought a bridge over the Mississippi was going to collapse. We would be calling him Nostradamus today, except that his doomsday prediction was about a different bridge (the old Lake Street Bridge, for those who know the Twin Cities). In fact, when officials tried to demolish the Lake Street Bridge to make way for a new one, the first round of explosives proved inadequate — they had to bring in a second round to bring it down. So that bridge proved sturdy, despite my father’s premonitions.
But what, if anything, can we learn from the recent bridge collapse?
One thing I suspect we will learn about is the government’s response to tragedy. No doubt there will be a lot of time and effort spent on extra bridge inspections, and probably a lot of money wasted because no one wants to be at risk for blame if something like this happens again. Now, I’m not saying we shouldn’t spend money on bridges; indeed, my friend Tom Paper (who also grew up in the Twin Cities) at Data360.org sent me this link to a chart depicting U.S. government spending on infrastructure as a share of GDP, which has fallen from 3% in the late 1960s to 2% currently. I’m not sure how much of that 1960s spending was put towards building interstates. But my guess is that the money spent in the wake of a tragedy like this one is not spent well.
Something about the events following the bridge collapse that makes sense, but which I never would have thought about, is how a sharp rise in cell phone usage alerted T-Mobile that something had happened before they heard the news reports. This would seem to hint at strategies that could be useful for coordinating quick emergency response more generally, as well as military/intelligence applications.