As Hurricane Harvey floodwaters finally recede, one thing that will be revealed is the idiocy of repealing standards for storm-proofing infrastructure and new development.
Flanked by Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and touting his desire (it has yet to ripen into a plan) for more infrastructure development, President Donald Trump on Aug. 15 unveiled an order wiping out flood-protection standards enacted by the Obama administration in 2015. At the time, the rollback was overshadowed by Trump’s remarks defending white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va.
Now the high cost of rebuilding from Harvey should focus attention, particularly in Congress, on the urgent need to plan for bigger storms and rising sea levels.
The push to keep building in flood-prone areas without taking steps to mitigate for storms and floods is coming from developers (of which Trump is one) and homebuilders. They insist the new rules would unjustifiably push up the cost of development. The Obama administration estimated construction costs would increase by 0.25 percent to 1.25 percent in flood-prone areas affected by the rule, but that taxpayers would save money in the long run.
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Trump’s move has drawn criticism from the political right and left.
Eli Lehrer, president of a free-market think tank in Washington, called Trump’s decision to overturn the rule “a disaster for taxpayers and the environment.” According to Lehrer’s R Street Institute, “evidence shows that every $1 spent on disaster mitigation can save $4 in post-disaster recovery and rebuilding costs.”
With federal taxpayers picking up much of the cost of rebuilding after disasters, the Obama rule was a common-sense way to prevent tax dollars from being washed away by predictable floods. By encouraging more responsible design and development decisions, it also served to protect human life.
Rebuilding Houston and other places hammered by Harvey would have been the rule’s first test — and still could be if Congress acts to reinstate sensible building and elevation standards.
The National Flood Insurance Program, which is heavily subsidized by taxpayers, started 2017 nearly $25 billion in the hole, in large part because of the surge in extreme weather events. More than a quarter of the $25 billion debt is from properties that flood repeatedly.
And it’s not just the coasts that are at risk. In 2016, there were four inland floods each topping $1 billion in damage; that’s double the average number since 1980. Kentucky was one of 36 states last year that experienced at least one flood-related event severe enough to merit a federal disaster declaration.
The Federal Flood Risk Management Standards that Trump overturned created elevation and building requirements for infrastructure — everything from highways to hospitals — built with federal tax dollars in situations where there is no alternative to building in flood-prone areas. It also would have updated flood-hazard mapping on which flood-insurance rates are based.
Whether or not you think climate change is real, or the costs of combating it worth the benefits, there’s no defense for sticking taxpayers with repeatedly paying for bad decisions about where and how to build in flood-prone areas.
Trump’s and Chao’s desire to please certain special interests should not be allowed to come at the public’s expense.