Rain continues to fall on Houston and surrounding areas at tragic levels. When the rains stop and the flood waters begin to recede — I hope that is very soon — the cost to rebuild will be massive. Pressure on Congress to act quickly will be intense. President Trump, however, has already put relief funds at risk.
Only 10 days prior to Hurricane Harvey’s landfall, Trump issued a reckless executive order that affects all federal agencies and contractors involved in Harvey’s relief effort. As part of his agenda of imposing climate denial throughout his administration, Trump rescinded a policy directing federal agencies to consider worsening future flood conditions when planning federally funded projects. The “Federal Flood Risk Management Standard” was aimed at improving America’s preparedness and resilience against flooding, and ensuring taxpayer funds are used wisely, by using the best information and building federally-funded infrastructure to withstand floods, as well as preserving natural floodplains that can minimize the threat to surrounding communities.
A One-Way Mirror of Climate Denial
Trump’s rescission of the flood risk standard is the bureaucratic equivalent of a deceptive one-way mirror. When trying to prevent and prepare for future floods, government agencies are encouraged to look backwards at the world decades ago — the picture is clear, but history is no longer an accurate guide of what to expect in the future when it comes to climate patterns, including rainfall and flooding. If they instead turn to look forward for a more complete picture based on the best science and the changes that are already observable in the real world, they see nothing but the same backwards reflection.
It is one thing to rebuild a home. It is quite another to rebuild homes in a community that is safer from a repeat of the same disaster. In a world where our climate is becoming increasingly chaotic and destructive, Trump’s action puts any disaster relief funds at risk of being steered away from the projects that would build the best resilience for future flood disasters.
Trump’s actions are part of his scorched earth approach to anything the government does on climate change – censoring scientific websites and reports, withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris climate accord, rolling back clean air rules, and appointing a polluter ally to run the EPA into the ground. In fact, whereas Trump’s agenda seems to have stalled on most fronts, his war on EPA has been a model of efficiency and zeal. His moves are deeply unpopular with the public, but he has been aided by Washington’s deep-pocketed lobbying organizations. When trump killed the flood plain standard, both the American Petroleum Institute and National Association of Home Builders vocally applauded.
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Trump’s obsession with climate denial in the face of flooding risks does not appear to have very deep roots. In 2014, Trump was on the opposite end of the spectrum, pushing for Irish authorities to allow him to build a new sea wall that, his filing stated, was necessary due to “predicted sea level rise and more frequent storm events.”
While it may have been self-serving to cite climate change as justification for his sea wall, at least he was correct. Many of the most damaging impacts of climate involve water – too much water in too short a time flooding some regions, not enough water creating droughts and others, and the steady rise of sea levels that pack an over-sized punch during storm surges. Climate change is altering U.S. rainfall patterns profoundly and making storms more extreme and destructive. As my colleague Scott Weaver, a climate scientist, points out:
Heavy rains and bad flooding are becoming the new normal in parts of our country as temperatures rise. Intense single-day rain events that cause flooding are on the rise. Historic weather data measured since 1910 shows that in the contiguous 48 states, nine of the top 10 years for extreme one-day rain events have occurred since 1990. Hurricane Harvey demonstrates that we continue to ignore these realities at our own peril.
Congress Must Ensure Proper Use of Relief Funds
Trump’s ill-timed actions are especially bad news for the areas hard hit by this ongoing disaster. Prevention, preparedness and recovery are all keys to flood management. It may be too late to prevent and prepare for Harvey, but we should smartly direct recovery efforts to help communities and businesses be much more resilient to future storms.
For that to happen, Congress must step up and rebuff Trump’s Executive Order when they take up disaster relief, which they should do swiftly. The legislation should include measures that ensure federal agencies plan for the real world – including the worsening flood events associated with climate change ― as they deploy disaster response funds. We can provide for Americans in need while soundly preparing for the future, but not if Congress entrusts the job to Trump alone.