U Learn from U10?

On the anniversary of the I35W bridge collapse, I still wonder if Minnesota collectively learned the lessons that will help us prevent future infrastructure disasters.  I’m just not sure the news media was at its best on this story, as former Star Tribune columnist Nick Coleman points out today on his blog.  The Star Tribune’s Tony Kennedy did uncover photos of the bent gusset in the investigation file, and that was some terrific journalism.  But that story begged for important follow-up questions that I’m not sure ever were posed.

The questions I had on November 14, 2008 when the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) came out with its final report are the same questions I have today.  And four years later, I worry that a smaller group of news reporters has even less capacity to investigate such complex stories than it had then.

For old times sake on this sad anniversary, my earlier bridge collapse questions from my November 14, 2008 post follow.  They weren’t comfortable to pose then, because no one likes finger-pointing.  They are no more comfortable to pose now.  But if we want to learn from history, the questions have to be asked…

U See U10, U Fix U10?

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has concluded that the I35W bridge collapse was caused by undersized gusset plates and oversized construction load, and that corrosion did not cause the collapse. I’m as far from an engineer as you can get, but all of that makes logical sense to me.

But it strikes me that the NTSB made an error of ommission. It failed to explore why no steps were taken to address a gusset plate that was known to be badly warped, more than four years before the collapse.

Some terrific investigative reporters at the Star Tribune discovered that Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) bridge inspectors had a June 12, 2003 photo of a very warped U10 gusset plate in their inspection file. U10 is the plate that NTSB says failed.

That part of the process seemed to work well, and we should be comforted by that. Inspectors spotted and documented a major problem.

But then what? Did the inspector report the problem to superiors? Did the inspectors’ superiors discuss options for strengthening the warped plate? If strengthening or replacing was technically infeasible, did MnDOT consider closing the bridge, as they have in the face of similar problems in St. Cloud and Hastings?

Assuming the plate couldn’t be fixed, why didn’t someone at least warn against parking several tons of construction equipment — reportedly the largest load the bridge had ever borne, equal to the weight of a 747 jet — directly on top of the badly warped U10 gusset?

These are legitimate questions that the NTSB seems to have bypassed.

Think of it this way. Imagine if a doctor spotted a tumor, stuck a PET scan of it in the file, labeled the tumor an unfortunate biological design flaw, and took no further action to prevent further damage from the flaw. The doctor would be 100% correct; the tumor is a design flaw, and not her fault. But the doctor would still need to explore all options for removing, killing or slowing the tumor.

And so it goes with MnDOT. The NTSB seems to have done excellent work examining the strictly technical issues behind the collapse. But for whatever reason, it stopped short of delving into the human and process issues.

I have no interest in villifying MnDOT. They do amazing work that keeps us safe, and keeps our society and economy humming along. I just want to see a great agency get better. There was a gap between inspectors seeing the flawed U10 gusset plate and MnDOT doing anything about it. To prevent future catastrophes, NTSB needs to help us understand the reasons for that gap.

The Seven Words You Now CAN Say On New Media

8mischke0319The shape of the media is obviously changing. Old media is adapting and sometimes expiring. New media is experimenting, evolving, dying and sometimes flourishing. Where it all will land is anyone’s guess.

But one interesting implication of all these changes is that much of the content is now outside the control of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Remember comedian George Carlin’s bit, The Seven Words You Cannot Say On TV?” Well, now you most definitely can say them via new media.

That may not seem like a big deal, but if people speak like they do in real life, maybe they’ll be more real. And more real is very good.

Witness today’s episode of the online show hosted by Tommy Mischke, the uniquely talented former talk show host at KSTP-AM. These days he streams a thoughtful, raw show from citypages.com, and today he interviewed long-time newspaper columnist Nick Coleman.

This is a more real voice of Coleman than you’ve heard in the mainstream media. This Nick Coleman joked about “spanking hot lobbyists” and the virtues of “commie rectum licking.” This Nick Coleman felt liberated enough to talk about how the Star Tribune, remarkably, forbade him from writing about the historic Obama inauguration. He talked about how his brother, the Mayor of St. Paul, was giving him the silent treatment because of his criticism of the St. Paul Police Department during the Republican National Convention (RNC), and how Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak called him an “asshole.” This Tommy Mischke was able to say “bullshit” when he was thinking “bullshit,” and he was able to speak his mind about his opinion that the birther movement is all about racism.

Refreshing and honest, I think. Revolting and too rowdy, the FCC and corporate media management would say.

Anyway, consider checking out Tommy’s new show. It’s still very Tommy. But it’s Tommy Unplugged, and being off the leash particularly suits a unique talent like his.

It’s disheartening to see all of the upheaval in the mainstream media worlds. But humans still want and need information, news and entertainment, so if mainstream media dies off, something will replace it. And my kids may very well grow up with information sources that are much more robust and enlightening than what I grew up with. We are blessed to live in interesting times.

– Loveland