Learning Harvey's lessons

When disaster strikes, Americans generally respond to the call. And despite the political sniping we’ve witnessed before Hurricane Harvey’s flood waters even had a chance to drain — from President Donald Trump’s inappropriate boast about crowd size at his speech in Corpus Christi to the hypocrisy of Texas lawmakers who opposed relief funding for victims of Hurricane Sandy five years ago but now expect a big check from Washington for Harvey victims — the time is fast approaching for Congress and the White House to do the right thing and provide a record-breaking package of emergency aid commensurate with the enormous level of destruction caused by a record-breaking storm.

Yet before that check is signed, before taxpayers are put on the hook for what is likely to be tens of billions of dollars to assist the victims and rebuild communities like Houston and Galveston, there is one quite reasonable request that ought to be made: Let’s not repeat our mistakes. Harvey wasn’t just an anomaly, it was a warning. This country needs to be smarter about where and how it grows and how it prepares for coastal storms or else such emergency relief will be shamefully wasted with communities rebuilt only to be toppled again when the next major meteorological disaster arrives.

Let’s also not ignore the politics of the moment. While President Trump appears confident that aid is forthcoming, the current Congress is sufficiently dysfunctional, particularly over matters of budget and spending, to have grave doubts about its response. And this won’t be happening in a vacuum. When members return next week, their agenda will already be crowded with must-pass legislation including basic funding for the government, which is set to expire at the end of September, raising the debt ceiling and reauthorizing the federal flood insurance program. That’s on top of the kind of partisan bickering that accompanied the Hurricane Sandy response in 2012.

Years ago, disaster relief was regarded as sacrosanct. You appropriated aid first and worried about how to balance the federal checkbook later. But that’s unlikely to be the case this time around. It was, after all, Mr. Trump’s own budget director, Mick Mulvaney, who, as a member of Congress, proposed financing Sandy relief with across-the-board cuts to discretionary programs. Texas Republicans like Sen. Ted Cruz falsely decried Sandy aid as costly pork barrel spending when there was actually precious little of that in the appropriation. Will offsets be required this time around?

Now, back to that building smarter business. One of President Trump’s more poorly timed choices was his decision two weeks ago to revoke President Barack Obama’s 2015 executive order that required communities receiving federal aid to mitigate their flood risks. In other words, the Obama administration wanted to make sure communities weren’t taking the counter-productive step of building infrastructure (roads, water and sewer lines and the like) to accommodate more development in flood plains, particularly as climate change and its accompanying sea-level rise raises the risks of flooding and severe weather. In Maryland, we call that smart growth, and it’s proven a key approach to dealing with stormwater management as well as cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay.

Houston provides a case study in sprawl and, frankly, dumb growth. The city has been hit hard not just by a record storm (and, admittedly, there’s no city in the country that wouldn’t be devastated by the downpours that Harvey brought) but by its lack of planning. Houston is famous for giving a free hand to developers, and that has severely constricted flood controls, both natural (wetlands) and man-made. Maryland witnessed a similar problem on a much smaller scale when Ellicott City flooded last summer — it wasn’t just a bad storm but the legacy of allowing too much impervious surface and development in flood-prone areas.

The Trump administration may be in denial over climate change, but taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay for such unbridled ignorance. Texas deserves our help, but some reasonable standards need to be in place or else Congress will just be wastefully and mindlessly throwing money at a problem that is destined to repeat itself, particularly with so many vulnerable coastal cities. The record books may have been rewritten by Harvey, but there’s a good chance they’ll be rewritten again soon enough. Forget one-year offsets, ignoring what’s happening to the climate is far more financially ruinous.

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