Trump’s flood-rules rollback benefits construction interests at the expense of taxpayers

A Florida road floods during Hurricane Irma. A recent move by President Donald Trump ends federal agencies' obligation to consider climate change when designing and constructing buildings and roads, costing taxpayers much more in rebuilding costs than would've been spent on prevention. (© Sean Rayford)

When President Donald Trump veered off script at a news conference about infrastructure, the details of his damaging Executive Order on federal flood risk management were understandably glossed over in the coverage of his comments about Charlottesville.

But those details are critically important. We’re getting a first-hand look at how important as communities in Texas and Florida start the long and expensive process of assessing flood damage and rebuilding what’s been lost.

President Trump’s executive order canceled one by his predecessor that was designed to mitigate flood damage to public infrastructure and therefore save taxpayers money.

President Barak Obama’s 2015 order, called the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard, was based on the simple notion that it’s cheaper to prevent flood damage than to fund flood recovery.

And make no mistake, there’s a lot of money at stake.

According to the Office of Management and Budget there’s $168 billion in federal property sitting in areas with a high flood risk. And the number of areas considered high risk is growing.

As we write, unprecedented resources are poring into both Texas and Florida to help communities recover from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. The pair of monster storms were devastating, among the most powerful ever to slam ashore in the United States.

But for many living near the coast, flooding now routinely unfolds without a headline-grabbing storm.

“While we most often think about flooding from major disasters like Hurricane Harvey or Hurricane Irma, there is an ongoing risk, not as dramatic, but just as troublesome,” said SELC attorney Kym Hunter. “Because of sea-level rise, flood damage is increasingly common from tropical storms, and even summer thunderstorms. In places like Norfolk or Charleston, severe flooding can happen with just with a heavy rain or a high tide.”

Sea-level rise means flood waters now reach areas they didn’t a century ago. And climate change is warming both water and atmosphere, two ingredients that fuel stronger storms that gush heavier rains. As the New York Times reported it, Obama’s order accounted for that by requiring the federal government “to account for climate change and sea-level rise when building infrastructure.”

That could be accomplished by elevating roads, hospitals, and other public infrastructure above flood levels, or by building outside of flood plains.

But as a further attack on environmental safeguards, President Trump this month nullified the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard.

In doing so, he is following a dangerous script established on the campaign trail. He denies climate change and sea level rise is a problem and he wants to maximize business profits, even at taxpayer expense. He called Obama’s regulations too burdensome on business but, under Trump’s order, it is taxpayers who will pay the price.

A 2005 study from the National Institute of Building Sciences showed that every dollar spent preparing for inevitable natural disasters like hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes saved $4 in recovery funding.

“Opening flood plains to poorly conceived public-infrastructure developments, without accounting for the reality of climate change, means taxpayers will shell out four times more than if common sense had prevailed,” Hunter said. “Trump’s order is a bad deal for the environment, but a really bad deal for taxpayers.”

Early damage estimates for Texas and Florida stretch into the billions. The back-to-back hurricanes likely will end up being the century’s most costly storms. But opening flood-prone areas to infrastructure projects without flood protections will surely mean higher recovery costs in the future.

“Essentially, Trump’s order might make it cheaper for builders and contractors now,” Hunter said. “But we will all pay more in the long run.”

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