Think Washington has been late to the game when it comes to lowering unemployment? Turns out you aren’t alone. Gallup polling has revealed that more than half of all American voters want their elected officials to focus on job creation rather than deficit reduction after the August recess.
At present, more than 25 million people– equivalent to 16% of the domestic labor force – are unemployed, underemployed in part-time positions, or so discouraged that they have given up looking for jobs altogether. Out of that group, nearly 1.5 million are people who formerly worked in the construction sector. Thousands of these unemployed painters, plumbers, roofers and technicians live in Gulf Coast metropolitan areas like Pascagoula and Pensacola that experienced construction booms (followed by busts) during the last decade.
Fortunately, some Beltway insiders are finally taking notice. One idea that has attracted attention is legislation to create a $50 billion program for school retrofits that will be introduced this fall by Representative Jan Schakowsky of Illinois.
FAST, which stands for “Fix America’s Schools Today”, was crafted by the Chicago-area congresswoman and researchers from two Washington think tanks, the 21st Century School Fund and the Economic Policy Institute (EPI). The proposed initiative would focus on improving energy efficiency, air quality, and building safety at the nearly 100,000 school buildings scattered across America, and based on an estimated jobs/spending ratio of 9,000-10,000 building repair jobs per $1 billion, the program could create as many as 500,000 new positions in the construction industry.
Few would argue against renovating classrooms, libraries, and cafeterias for America’s children, especially with a new school year just around the corner. The truth is that such repairs are long overdue. Though school buildings in Louisiana and other Sun Belt states are, on average, several years newer than their counterparts in the North and the Midwest, more than 50 percent of the educational facilities used by youngsters in the United States were constructed over four decades ago, according to the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities. Regardless of their location, many of these facilities are plagued with mold, equipped with inadequate handicap access, and hampered by other limitations. Unfortunately, as a result of state and local budget crises, most school districts have been unable to attend to these issues.
If Congress is finally going to address the long list of deferred maintenance projects at our nation’s schools, we think that it would make sense for bills like Congresswoman Schakowsky’s to include more explicit provisions for upgrades that would improve storm resilience at educational facilities. We need these structures to withstand windstorms, and if roofing, window, and wall repairs costing tens of thousands of dollars per facility could save a community millions of dollars in demolition and replacement costs, then we think that would be money well spent.
Big Buildings, Big Problems
Along with the local house of worship and the area department store, the school is often one of the largest buildings in a community. Yet despite their importance to economic and civic life, these three types of structures are often ill-equipped to deal with fierce winds from hurricanes and tornadoes.
For example, many churches and supersized retail facilities are constructed with big windows and tall walls with long spans. Such structural characteristics make them especially vulnerable to destruction in violent windstorms. Moreover, big-box stores are often built without reinforced rooms to protect their customers and workers during tornadoes, so when storms do occur, as they did in Tuscaloosa and other Southern cities earlier this year, the toll can be devastating.
As a result, the school is often the last, best hope for shielding residents from storms. Unfortunately, when these houses of learning are tested by the whipping winds of an approaching twister or tropical storm, they typically fail miserably. During the Joplin tornado earlier this year, some of the Missouri city’s residents flocked to schools lacking proper safe rooms, leaving them exposed to the elements as buildings like the town high school shattered to pieces in the storm.
The Need for Congressional Consensus on Community Resilience
After events like the Joplin tornado and Hurricane Katrina, schools must often double as shelters, triage centers, or coordination points for aid distribution. In times of crisis, they become communal places to gather resources, share important information, and instill hope. For this reason, it is important for Republican and Democratic leaders to consider ways to improve school storm resilience in all American communities. FEMA now is working with hard-hit towns like Joplin, Missouri to make new and existing educational facilities more resilient to windstorms, but we shouldn’t wait for disasters to occur before committing more money to community protection.
If Congress is able to secure bipartisan support for a school retrofit program in the next several months, it should also prioritize efforts to make school buildings more resilient to storm damage. Not only would this program be a huge boon for the construction industry, it also would be a great step towards providing millions of Americans with safer shelters when disasters strike.