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Trump, in a gift to industry, puts new infrastructure at flood risk

REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
It would be too bad if we lost track, in all the legitimate dismay and disgust over that pandering, of Trump’s official purpose for the event: rolling back another Obama-era policy that supposedly buries American infrastructure projects in climate-change red tape.

History will probably best remember Wednesday’s press conference for Donald Trump’s cynical effort to placate his white nationalist/racist/fascist claque by pretending that “both sides” share responsibility for the Charlottesville horror.

But it would be too bad if we lost track, in all the legitimate dismay and disgust over that pandering, of Trump’s official purpose for the event: rolling back another Obama-era policy that supposedly buries American infrastructure projects in red tape.

In fact, the 2015 directive — which had and retains considerable Republican support — simply required planners of federally funded roads and bridges, not to mention hospitals and schools, to certify that they weren’t being built in places where flood risk is increasing because of higher sea levels, intensifying rainfall events or even other infrastructure projects.

Trump’s braying about the supposed horrors of the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard  have been widely quoted: "No longer will we tolerate one job-killing delay after another. … No longer will we accept a broken system that benefits consultants and lobbyists at the expense of hardworking Americans. ... If it doesn't meet environmental safeguards, we're not going to approve it."

That last pledge could be sincere, but it surely is irrelevant because the Obama order wasn’t about “environmental safeguards” as we usually understand that term, and as Trump no doubt intended us to understand it.

Rather than making sure construction doesn’t harm the environment, you could say the now nullified initiative was about making sure the environment isn’t about to harm the construction.

Updating the risk zone

Federally assisted projects have long been required to certify that they are situated outside the 100-year floodplain boundary. But the maps that show those floodplain contours have been outdated by rising sea levels and increasingly intense precipitation events — shifts many climate deniers accept, even as they quibble about causality — as well as an array of other factors not so tightly tied to climate.

So, the previous administration reasoned, it would only make sense to require that as a condition of receiving support from U.S. taxpayers, the flood-risk review be based on up-to-date maps of current conditions and perhaps, in some cases, reliable projections of the future floodplain. Or, as an even easier alternative in some cases, project planners could simply site the construction 2 feet above the 100-year line (three feet for hospitals). Or, to be really safe, at the 500-year line.

Lots of options there, which makes sense to me and I bet makes sense to you. It also made sense to the American Society of Civil Engineers, which called for updated policies after assessing the weaknesses exposed by the country’s infrastructure losses in events like Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy.

And it makes sense to a fair number of conservatives and/or Republicans — including Eli Lehrer, formerly of the Heartland Institute and now president of the R Street Institute, who said in his blog on Wednesday that “I think the standards were one of the few unalloyed good things the Obama administration did.”

They’re a clear message from the federal government that federal taxpayers won’t pay to build in flood-prone areas and will build infrastructure designed to stand up to nature. The Federal Flood Risk Management Standards, promulgated by a January 2015 executive order, drew on the principles of President Ronald Reagan’s great Coastal Barrier Resources Act which forbade development subsidies for barrier islands and barrier beaches while leaving the private sector free to do as it pleased. This is a great policy.

Lehrer said further that he felt it was a marketing mistake to label the action as a climate-change initiative, because that made it a hot potato and, also, easier for Trump to attack. But as for the climate realities, he said,

Now, it’s absolutely true that greenhouse gas emissions have resulted in thermal expansion of seawater and some ice melt in polar regions. These factors (mostly the former) have resulted in sea-level rise. This results in more flooding. In fact, an increase in “sunny day” flooding is one of the very few easy-to-observe widespread phenomena that we can link to greenhouse gas emissions in a convincing fashion.

That said, the areas most at-risk now and in the near future are almost all places where climate change isn’t the dominant concern. Changes in the levels of continental plates, as well as land loss caused by hydrological projects and other human activity, can have local impacts hundreds of times larger than those caused by global warming. Purely natural processes like erosion and seasonal plant growth also can change which particular areas will flood, how badly and how often.

In any given area, these factors can be far more likely to make the difference than sea-level rise, which generally proceeds at a scale noticeable only after decades have passed. The folks who wrote the Obama executive order—I talked with them a bunch—knew this well and wrote the order in a neutral fashion to deal with whatever was causing flooding. [my emphasis added]

Large losses already

These losses are not theoretical, and the current levels of loss are not trivial. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, flood damage cost Americans $260 billion from 1980 to 2013, while claims under federal flood insurance policies have averaged $1.9 billion a year in the last decade.

Also, interestingly, FEMA notes that flooding accounts for 85 percent of federal disaster declarations and kills more people than any other natural hazard.

Obama’s order confined itself to federal investments in potentially flood threatened public construction. It made no changes, for example, in the flood insurance program for private properties, which has come under heavy and bipartisan attack in the last several years for essentially subsidizing unwise placement of homes and other buildings in harm’s way.

Congress supposedly is working on changes to that program, but don’t hold your breath. Ditto for Trump’s much-touted trillion-dollar public-works bill, which he says will restore what used to be “the greatest infrastructure anywhere in the world” from its current “Third World” status …  but has not yet been drafted.

So who was pushing for the change? Among others, the National Association of Home Builders; its chairman, Texas developer Granger MacDonald, issued this statement of praise:

NAHB commends President Trump for signing this executive order that rescinds the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard (FFRMS), an overreaching environmental rule that needlessly hurt housing affordability. The FFRMS posed unanswered regulatory questions that would force developers to halt projects and raise the cost of housing. This action by President Trump will provide much-needed regulatory relief for the housing community and help American home buyers.

Well, that’s a position that I imagine has a lot of appeal to our developer-in-chief. But to me, what it’s saying is that we shouldn’t make it harder for members of MacDonald’s association to build private homes in the path of a flood, by making it harder to build the public infrastructure their developments require.

When the high water comes — as it surely will — the homeowners lose, their communities suffer, the local tax base contracts, the insurance-subsidizing federal taxpayer writes off another investment … but the members of Granger MacDonald’s association come out just fine. Which is what matters to Donald Trump.

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