I wonder if we will learn anything from the pictures of devastation coming from Houston.
Leave aside the contentious arguments over climate change, and the degree to which it contributed to the severity of the storm. There were other omens even denialists should have been able to appreciate. Last year, for example, a ProPublica/Texas Tribune investigation found that officials charged with addressing Houston’s obvious susceptibility to flooding had discounted scientists’ warnings as “anti-development.”
That reaction was so typically Houstonian.
For years, Houston has reveled in its “freedom” from “onerous, unnecessary regulations.” The city has no zoning, and its building codes are lax. As Newsweek has reported, Houston is “drowning in its freedom.”
The feeling there was that persons who own real estate should be free to develop it as they wish…In less-free cities, the jackbooted thugs in the zoning department impose limits on the amount of impervious cover in a development.
Houston’s allergy to “jackbooted thugs” like city planners and its preference for “freedom” over strict building codes is a longstanding feature of its politics. Whether that city’s powers-that-be will moderate their distaste for regulations that would mitigate future disasters remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, the federal government–under our “pro-business” President– is moving away from prudence and toward Houston’s free-wheeling approach.
Since 2015, infrastructure projects paid for by federal dollars have had to plan ahead for floods and water damage. But when Houston and surrounding towns start to rebuild after floodwaters recede from Tropical Storm Harvey, they won’t be required to plan ahead for the next big storm.
That’s because on August 15, President Trump rolled back the Federal Flood Risk Mitigation Standard, an Obama-era regulation. The 2015 directive, which never fully went into effect, required public infrastructure projects that received taxpayer dollars to do more planning for floods, including elevating their structures to avoid future water damage and alleviate the burden on taxpayers.
Trump characterized his move as repealing an onerous government regulation and streamlining the infrastructure approval process. But he was criticized by both environmental groups and conservatives, who said it made sense to try to protect federal investments.
Between 2005 and 2014, the federal government spent an estimated $277 billion dollars responding to natural disasters like Harvey.
Obama’s flood risk mitigation regulation was intended to reduce those sorts of expenditures by prescribing certain standards for newly constructed infrastructure. Adhering to those standards might cost more money upfront, but requiring such flood mitigation measures would save taxpayers far more in the long run. According to experts, flood mitigation has a 4-1 payback.
No federal projects were ever built with the new standards, because it took years to go through the required public comment process before the rules were finalized. As federal agencies like FEMA and the US Department of Housing and Urban Development were waiting for final approval, Trump nixed the standards. And without that final approval, the agencies won’t be able to act on any of Obama’s recommendations.
“Had those regulations been finalized for FEMA and HUD in particular, they would have ensured that all the post-Harvey rebuilding complied with those standards, helping ensure that we built back in a way that was safer,” said Rob Moore, senior policy analyst at the National Resources Defense Council.
When the floodwaters recede and Houston looks toward repairing and rebuilding its damaged infrastructure, there very may well be state and local officials advocating for more mitigation projects. But there will be no incentive from the Trump administration to do so.
In fairness, Trump didn’t invent this “penny wise, pound foolish” mindset. It is part and parcel of the anti-government rhetoric that is carefully nurtured by politicians who would never conduct their personal affairs in a similarly imprudent manner.
It will be interesting to see what lessons–if any– the anti-regulation, anti-government, anti-science zealots take from the disaster that is Houston.