Just 10 days before ‘Harvey’ struck Texas!



by Selvam Canagaratna

"The good rain, like a bad preacher, does not know when to leave off."

– Emerson, Journals, 1834.

Anything and everything associated with his immediate predecessor in office is clearly anathema to the current occupant of the White House. And so, Donald being the impetuous Donald he always was – and always will be – the unambiguous warnings of America’s top metereologists that an utterly destructive Hurricane Harvey was due to make landfall in Texas within two weeks didn’t deter him from abolishing, by Executive Order, vital sections of the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard established by Barack Obama in 2015.

No, the point is not that Harvey would simply have disappeared had Trump not done what he did. But Trump, being Trump, will never accept he’s wrong. [If anything, he’ll boast having got Nature to do his bidding!]

So it’s necessary here to explain just what Obama’s objective was back in 2015.

In 1977, President Jimmy Carter signed an Executive Order requiring that floodplains be built to withstand 100-year flooding. The term ‘100-year flood’ only refers to the probability that a flood of a certain magnitude will happen in a given year in a vulnerable area. For 100-year floods, that’s 1 percent, for 500-year floods it’s 0.2 percent. If it feels as if we’re now experiencing 100-year and 500-year events year after year, that’s because we are!

Rafael Lemaitre, an ex-Federal Emergency Management Agency spokesperson under Obama, explained it in terms that everybody could easily grasp: "You have to ask the question before something like Harvey happens again, and it will: "What are we doing to save lives, property, and, frankly, taxpayer dollars? And the one thing we can do is encourage communities to adopt higher standards for building."

After Superstorm Sandy, the Obama administration reviewed existing standards and raised the bar agencies would have to set for regular and critical infrastructure projects requesting federal dollars. The relevant government agencies were still in the process of implementing these new standards when Trump rescinded Obama’s order and reverted to the ‘status quo’ – which returned to the out-of-date requirements from the Carter era.

Obama’s order raised elevation standards for new federally-funded projects to better withstand flooding, but now – thanks to Trump’s quixotic Executive Order – federal dollars for repairing Harvey’s damage will require building standards that disaster-risk experts consider too lenient – and dangerous.

"Reverting to the status quo . . . leaves communities vulnerable," Joel Scata, a water attorney for Natural Resources Defense Council, told Mother Jones magazine. "The same issues happen over and over again."

The status quo requires floodplains to look to historical data and be built to withstand 100-year flooding, but, importantly, NOT go above it. If anything, accelerating sea level rise and changing, heavier rainfall patterns from climate change means the 100-year flooding model is in urgent need of an update. Houston has already seen three 100-year floods this year alone, and three 500-year floods in the past three years. Miami, New Orleans, Tampa, and New York all face similar growing risks.

In a major storm, added R Street Institute’s Ray Lehmann, an insurance and disaster preparedness expert, "the security and responsiveness of hospitals, fire departments, and police stations become even more important. We’ve repeatedly seen that in real-time when disasters strike. But unless these structures are built on higher ground and to some reasonable standard to withstand floods, you have the potential for massive human suffering. We’re talking about the ability of people getting rescued. That is the biggest shame of not taking this sort of risk seriously in our infrastructure. Beyond the dollars and cents of it, the ability to respond in a crisis is seriously impaired if this emergency-response infrastructure can’t withstand the storm."

But after Harvey had unleashed its fury in the form of 27 trillion gallons of water on the helpless residents of Houston, Texas, turning streets and lakes into raging rivers, and claimning the lives of 47 people, Donald Trump went on the record to prove that Harvey had not, yes not, robbed him of any of his bombastic rhetoric:

"Believe me, we will be bigger, better, stronger than ever before! The rebuilding will begin and in the end it will be something very special," he boasted from the White House. But what Donald conveniently forgot to say was that, thanks to his own recent Executive Order, all rebuilding will now conform to the old, lower 100-year-flooding standard set by President Carter’s Executive Order way back in 1977. [Although Harvey was initially viewed as a 500-year flood, in reality it has proved to be a 1000-year event! Donald Trump and his idiotic band of climate-change deniers choose to ignore this reality.]

An Op-Ed in Politico magazine addressed the critical problem of flooding and applauded Obama-era regulations for the protection they offered: "The standard also ensures that in an era of rising deficits and tight budgets, tax dollars are spent on projects that will not merely be washed away in the next storm. While many Americans may think flooding is only a problem for coastal regions prone to hurricanes and tropical storms, the reality is that in just the past five years, all 50 states in the US have experienced flood damage."

Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said in a statement: "This is climate science denial at its most dangerous, as Trump is putting vulnerable communities, federal employees, and families at risk by throwing out any guarantee that our infrastructure will be safe."

Trump was asked point-blank whether he supports cutting the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) budget in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. His response: ‘No’. Left unmentioned was the fact that, earlier this spring, the President himself called for historic cuts to FEMA's budget.

Trump's 2018 budget blueprint proposed more than $1 billion in cuts to FEMA – 11 percent of its total footprint, and included its two largest provisions: preparing for and responding to emergencies, besides funding for emergency food and shelter and training for first responders.

Trump is so super-focussed on deporting illegal immigrants from Mexico that he wants to shift $5 billion within the Department of Homeland Security to Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. In the process, he’s willfully neglecting real national security risks.

Trump’s cuts to the Highway Trust Fund would starve the country’s highway infrastructure of nearly $100 billion – and put more than 97,000 jobs at risk in Texas alone.

The irony is that the administration is so focused on deportation that it is openly neglecting real national security risks. FEMA and the US Coast Guard not only respond to natural disasters and protect vulnerable populations; they also respond to terrorist attacks.

Said Jeremy Slevin, Associate Director of Advocacy for the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress: "Communities of colour are the most likely to live near the petrochemical plants that could – and did – discharge toxic substances – during Hurricane Harvey. "Donald Trump is so focused on chasing his white whale that he’s ignoring the core functions of government," noed Slevin.

Wrote Dahr Jamail on the Truthout website: "Given that warming of both the atmosphere and oceans is only going to continue to escalate, a text I received from a good friend of mine who lives near downtown Houston captured what Harvey portends: "It will take years to recover. We are all rescuing each other."

"Odd to think that our future can be summed up like that", mused Jamail.

Meanwhile, another threat – Hurricane Irma – gathers strength in the Atlantic . . .

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