Washignton -- hub of the Free World, nerve center of the only superpower and the nation's capital -- gurgled, splashed, and nearly drowned in four days of intense rainfall last week.
As natural disasters go, it was small beer. But it was enough to have 2,000 people moved from behind a dam in suburban Montgomery County, Md., to shelters, and to cause truly monstrous traffic jams in and around Washington. Some federal buildings in Washington were flooded and their operations were curtailed.
The message was simple: The nation's capital is vulnerable. Those who might wish us harm were again reminded that very small perturbations can have devastating effects on the operations of the city and the government it houses.
As pumping stations failed and raw sewage flowed into the Potomac, it became writ large that Washington's infrastructure, as with many of the nation's cities, is old, crumbling and inadequate. The greatest vulnerability is in transportation.
As the Washington-area has grown vastly, its services and infrastructure have lagged. Classically the demand has been for new homes, new offices, and the entire area is caught in the asymmetry between what local government can provide and what expansion has demanded.
The crux of Washington's problem -- repeated in every major city across America -- is transportation, or more specifically the lack of it. The subway system, with just over 100 miles of track, carries 500,000 passengers a day. It could carry many more if it were more extensive. Those who use it are not carried to where they live, but to where they park. So the highways are jammed as much in the outer suburbs as they are in Washington's center. Workers are used to two-hour commutes in the best weather, and four-hour delays when nature turns ugly.
Washington came close to total gridlock in the recent torrential rains; a state of affairs that last occurred in 2001, after the Sept. 11 attack on the Pentagon.
Not only are the nation's cities choking with traffic but along the coasts, inter-city traffic is so bad that people are forced to drive overnight -- ironically, just as we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Interstate Highway System.
But it is not just the roads that are inadequate to the job. For their water, the older cities in the East and Midwest depend on 100-year-old pipes and on clapped-out pumping stations. For their rail transportation, they depend on systems where speeds are restricted, often to below 40 miles an hour, because the track and the switching are inadequate. No wonder more trucks hit the crowded roads every year.
The state of the nation's infrastructure is appalling and getting worse. Roads, railroads, airports, water and sewage lines, and electric power lines are not keeping up with the demands made on them.
We are in an infrastructural crisis that belies our dominant world position. We are defended but we are vulnerable. We can send a cruise missile down a chimney in Baghdad, but we cannot get home at the end of the day.
Many metropolitan papers feature an equivalent of "Dr. Gridlock," an advice for the idling column that runs in The Washington Post. Yet the solutions to infrastructure problems are piecemeal and inadequate. And they are compounded by the current political fear of taxes.
It is strange that no aspiring national politician has embraced infrastructural renewal as a campaign theme -- and a necessary part of homeland security.
Even after New Orleans perished because its levies failed, the message did not get out that every city is dying slowly from decaying infrastructure, and that death can be hastened by malicious acts or the simple wrath of nature.
Llewellyn King is the publisher of White House Weekly and host of the weekly PBS television show White House Chronicle. Readers may write to him at King Publishing, 1325 G Street NW, Suite 1003, Washington, D.C. 20005.
© 2006 The Providence Journal Co.