Trump Policies Could Undermine Post-Harvey Rebuilding

Aug 29, 2017
Originally published on August 30, 2017 1:22 pm

President Trump pledged to rebuild Houston and Texas bigger and better than ever. However, earlier this month, he rescinded an Obama executive order that required flood-damaged property to be rebuilt higher and stronger. Trump also has proposed eliminating federal flood mapping and the federal government's top disaster agency.

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Just before President Trump flew to Texas, he promised to help the state recover.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Believe me, we will be bigger, better, stronger than ever before. The rebuilding will begin. And in the end, it will be something very special.

SHAPIRO: But the president has recently made some big changes in how the government manages disasters. And as NPR's Christopher Joyce reports, those changes could make it more difficult to rebuild stronger.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: Two years ago, President Obama issued an executive order designed to help communities rebuild after floods. It covered projects that use federal funds - bridges, hospitals, sewage treatment plants. They had to be built higher and stronger to withstand future disasters, especially as climate change brought wetter storms. Two weeks ago, President Trump rescinded that order. Flood expert Rob Moore calls that tragic.

ROB MOORE: Without this standard in place, you know, we're going to continue building things that get knocked down and we're going to continue rebuilding those things after they're knocked down.

JOYCE: Moore is with the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group. Besides environmental groups, some conservatives were also disappointed with Trump's decision.

R J LEHMANN: It's clearly the wrong direction.

JOYCE: J.R. Lehmann (ph) is a fellow at the R Street Institute, a free-market research group that wants to see tax dollars spent efficiently.

LEHMANN: Being able to reduce or eliminate a risk is much more cost effective than having to respond to it after the fact.

JOYCE: He says that means more than elevating buildings after floods. It means getting people to stop building in hazardous areas.

LEHMANN: Most of the increase in disasters is not actually due to changes in the weather but changes in human living patterns.

JOYCE: But Lehmann also says Obama made a tactical error by tying the executive order to climate change.

LEHMANN: The Obama executive order was pitched as a climate change adaptation measure as opposed to simply a risk management measure. Made it kind of toxic on the right. And that probably wasn't the wisest marketing.

JOYCE: Besides the executive order, the budget for the Federal Emergency Management Agency has become a target as well. FEMA is the government's front line when it comes to flooding. President Trump's proposed budget for next year cuts hundreds of millions of dollars that FEMA spends to help states prepare for flooding and other disasters. It also eliminates FEMA's flood mapping program. FEMA draws up maps that show who's in a flood zone and has to buy flood insurance and who doesn't. NRDC's Rob Moore says that could have far-reaching effects.

MOORE: What the Trump administration doesn't seem to understand is that these flood maps are used for decisions at every level of government. They're used by private developers for deciding where it is safe to build and what kinds of standards do we need to build to in order to be safeguarded against flooding?

JOYCE: FEMA is already in a delicate position financially. It's over $23 billion in debt. The tragedy unfolding in Texas and Louisiana will cost billions more and may well drive the agency further underwater. Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this report, we mistakenly refer to R Street Institute editor in chief and senior fellow R.J. Lehmann as J.R. Lehmann.]

(SOUNDBITE OF RICHARD HOUGHTEN'S "SAVING A LIFE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.