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An infrastructure expert weighs in on the Baltimore bridge collapse

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Let's turn now to a question raised by the collapse of Baltimore's Francis Scott Key Bridge. The bridge was up to code, according to Maryland's governor, and the FBI says there is no evidence this was a terrorist attack. And yet, if you watch video of what happened when a cargo ship hit it early this morning, it went down as though it were made of toothpicks. So what happened? We're going to put that to Stephen Flynn. He's an expert in critical infrastructure and supply chain resilience, also a former officer in the U.S. Coast Guard. Stephen Flynn, welcome.

STEPHEN FLYNN: I'm delighted to be with you.

KELLY: May I ask what your first thoughts were when you woke up and saw this news?

FLYNN: Well, it was really, first, concern for anybody who'd been on the bridge.

KELLY: Of course.

FLYNN: And then, second, oh, my goodness, this is going to be a real mess.

KELLY: Yeah.

FLYNN: This is going to be a real disruption, a real consequential loss here by losing this important piece of infrastructure that essentially has closed off the port of Baltimore from the rest of the world.

KELLY: Yeah, I - it's hard to wrap my head around just what the challenge of clearing debris from the harbor will be.

FLYNN: It's going to be a huge undertaking. I mean, you know, the basic challenge here was a vessel of this size hitting one of the two support columns for the span was going to bring that bridge down. And the way in which that's prevented is - the best way you do that is to create essentially a fender around that structure. In the maritime world, we call it a dolphin.

And actually, back in 1980, we had something similar happen in Tampa with the Sunshine Bridge. That had a collision - the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. And when they rebuilt it, they put a big apron around it, basically, in order to - if a ship came near it, it would not hit that structure. But what's happened is that we have bigger and bigger ships coming into old ports, and we didn't necessarily keep the infrastructure up to pace with some of the challenges that having much larger vessels, like the one that collided with the ship today.

KELLY: OK. So you're starting to get to the central question, how a bridge this massive that, as we said, was up to code - how it would go down so fast. You've mentioned a couple things. One is cargo ships have gotten way bigger, which I suppose prompts the question - could any bridge, no matter how you build it, withstand getting hit by a ship that big?

FLYNN: If the ship collides directly with the support pylon - basically that structure that's holding up the span - almost certainly the bridge will come down. That's just the nature - that's almost the single point of failure on the bridge. The only way to prevent that is to create essentially an outer wall around and away from that structure. And that way, if the ship hit that, it would not, you know, impact on the structural integrity of the bridge.

KELLY: So for existing bridges, what safety measures should we be thinking about?

FLYNN: Well, we really - you really have one or two courses for the suspension bridges that have - that essentially rely on these pylons to hold up the towers that hold up the deck of the bridge. And that is to create a safety zone, essentially, around it. Or you have more care with the vessels. And this could include tugs that actually escort the vessels through the bridge opening in order to make sure we don't have these kinds of collisions.

KELLY: Ah.

FLYNN: The better approach is the first one - is to basically create that kind of mini island around the actual pylon and then that reduces any possibility of the ship actually hitting the key structural member.

KELLY: Ah. I mean, is there any conversation at all about restricting the size of these mega cargo ships when they're going through densely populated areas with big bridges?

FLYNN: There hasn't been, really. What - the whole movement in the industry is going - basically assuming bigger is better. There's better economies of scale. We get, essentially, lower-cost goods in a very efficient way. But what this led to is a much more concentrated infrastructure that we rely on.

And it's not just the stuff on the water. Because Baltimore is in very one of our most important ports on the East Coast, there's a lot of shoreside infrastructure - big distribution centers that Amazon and FedEx have 'cause they want to be nearby where those boxes are coming off the ship or loading stuff onto them. And so when - this particular bridge, though, is closing out the entire harbor. Everything inside the harbor now is trapped inside. And anybody who's on the outside trying to get in, that's not going to happen. And what you now have is a massive challenge of how to clear out the debris from the shipping channel so you can get that harbor back up and running.

KELLY: Yeah.

FLYNN: And it's not going to be easy to do. You've got - this is the No. 1 port in the country, for instance, for automobiles. The automobile industry is just getting back up on its feet coming off of COVID. Last year, about three-quarter of a million cars and light trucks came out of the port of Baltimore. And you can't just say, well, let's just take them up to New York or down to Charleston - some other big ports on the coast - because there isn't the infrastructure there that's the same way for that particular niche in the maritime sector. The disruptions that are going to flow from this are going to be quite consequential for quite some time.

KELLY: The National Transportation Safety Board, the NTSB, is investigating. What is the biggest question they should prioritize, in your view?

FLYNN: Well, there really is the - I think the biggest issue here is the bridge failure itself and the lack of safeguard that we had in place to protect that pylon. That's the focus. What they - obviously, there are very important questions about the ship itself - how it was handled, what the source of it losing its way and causing the collision that took place. But the other real big issue we have to focus on is what does the recovery look like? How do we rebuild and hopefully build back better? A big focus of resilience is actually not just bouncing back but bouncing forward. We have to adapt to the risk as they're evolving.

KELLY: That is infrastructure expert Stephen Flynn. He is founding director of the Global Resilience Institute at Northeastern University. Stephen Flynn, thanks for your time.

FLYNN: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF BADBADNOTGOOD'S "TIMID INTIMIDATING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Mary Louise Kelly
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Mia Venkat
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.