As fall becomes winter, residents across North America and the Caribbean are still feeling the impact of one of the most destructive hurricane seasons in recent memory. Rebuilding our infrastructure, no matter how it’s done, will be an expensive ongoing effort that takes years. However, in a political climate driven by a scarcity of funds, the United States can make a difference right now by prioritizing funding and changing the way our nation uses innovative materials. Right now, a majority of North American bridges, utility poles, crossarms, pipes and tanks rely on old-fashioned materials like wood, concrete and steel.

The numbers from this past hurricane season are staggering. At one point during Hurricane Irma, 13 million people were without power. A week later, 6.3 million people in five states were still without power, and nearly seven weeks after Hurricane Maria, roughly half of Puerto Rico was also without power. According to Moody’s Analytics, the combined cost of property damage during Harvey and Irma is estimated between $150–200 billion. That number is even greater when taking lost output into account. Implementing innovation is no longer a luxury, it is a necessity in order to build a resilient infrastructure. It is time to stop relying on 19th Century technology and start building smarter.

While hurricanes and other natural disasters shine a light on the need for innovative material solutions, two far more pervasive problems, structural degradation and corrosion, are also enemies in the fight for a stronger, longer-lasting infrastructure. Although FRP is not yet the primary material used in civil engineering, there are plenty of recent examples that show how composites serve the needs of communities in need of stronger, longer-lasting structures.

Utility poles

Most of today’s utility poles are wood, a 19th century technology, which is susceptible to significant damage when exposed to turbulent weather. Even without violent weather conditions, utility and telecommunication companies spend millions of dollars each year replacing wood poles that are damaged and destroyed by woodpeckers, ants and termites. According to a 2009 report (see table below) from the U.S. Department of Energy, more than 70,000 utility poles were destroyed during Hurricane Katrina.

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