Mr. President, you need a winning strategy against the next Harvey

Mr. President, you need a winning strategy against the next Harvey
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Each year the president of the United States receives a briefing from the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) about the upcoming hurricane season. This year’s briefing on August 4th was no different. After the briefing, President Trump tweeted, “Preparedness is an investment in our future!”

Less than a month later, flooding from Hurricane Harvey has devastated Texas. Harvey has left even the National Weather Service breathless. In their words, it’s “unprecedented… and beyond anything experienced.” As the nation girds to help Houston and other communities through the multi-year process of getting back on their feet and we see the full extent of damage cause by Hurricane Irma, we should all remember the president’s words. Preparedness will make our future brighter. 

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President Trump, here are five things you can do now, working with Congress, to ensure that the nation can better withstand catastrophic flooding in the future.

 

First, encourage Americans to purchase flood insurance. Tragically, many Houston residents will discover that their homeowner’s policies do not cover flooding. Only 15 percent of homes in Harris County, which includes Houston, carry flood insurance. Because more of us now live in cities along our coasts and because our climate continues to warm, the floods of the past are no longer a good guide as to what we can expect in the future. Tell Americans to get the insurance.

Meanwhile, you should work with Congress on the reauthorization of the National Flood Insurance Program. That program was already $24 billion in the red before Harvey hit. It is in need of serious reform, including finding more ways to help people move out of harm’s ways. 

Second, restore — or better yet increase — funding for preparedness efforts. Consider the example of flood maps. Flood maps don’t prevent flooding, but they do help communities better plan for floods. That planning can significantly cut the cost of future disasters. The nation’s current flood maps are often out of date and do not reflect the nation’s increased risk of flooding from climate change.

In other words, they are good at showing what our flood risk was, but much less effective in indicating what our future risks will be. Your proposed budget zeroed out funds for FEMA’s flood hazard mapping. That money should be restored.

Another way FEMA helps communities prepare for catastrophes is through its Pre-Disaster Mitigation Program (PDM). The PDM allows FEMA to help high-risk communities get ready in advance of severe weather events. Congress gave that program $100 million in fiscal 2017. 

President Trump, your budget proposal cut that figure by nearly 61 percent to just $37 million. That’s not much preparedness for a nation of over 325 million people. If we use federal dollars to help communities prepare in advance, we can significantly reduce the cost of recovery. For every $1 we spend on mitigating risk, we typically save $4 in damages. 

Third, invest in prediction and early warning. The more warning we can give people, the more likely they will have time to move out of harm’s way. In 1964, a 20-foot-tall tsunami hit Crescent City California killing 11 people. In 2011, another tsunami hit Crescent City, destroying much of its harbor. This time, however, no one died because a tsunami detection system installed in 2008 had given residents several hours of advance warning.

You have proposed defunding the $12 million network of sensors. You have also proposed cuts to hurricane warning systems, the development of weather forecasts 16 to 30 days into the future, and improved tornado detection and warning. 

Early warning saves lives. Let’s invest in it.

Fourth, bring back the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard. After Superstorm Sandy’s 900-mile-wide path brought devastation to 24 states, President Obama issued an executive order creating a federal building standard for floods. That standard provides that when federal taxpayer dollars are used to build or rebuild in or near the floodplain, the structure must be built higher.

Ten days before Hurricane Harvey made landfall, you rescinded the standard. Texas will need lots of federal money to rebuild from Harvey’s devastation. That money should be used to build back better.

Fifth, give communities what they need to understand future risk. Harvey has exceeded anything this nation has previously experienced. Unfortunately, with rising global temperatures, we are at risk of more Harvey-like catastrophes. 

Ever since 2013, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has identified climate change as posing a “high” fiscal risk for the federal government. The GAO has noted the need for government to improve its efforts to provide decision makers with meaningful information and technical assistance regarding climate change impacts.

In 2015, the federal government created the Advisory Committee for the Sustained National Climate Assessment. Its membership consisted of scientists, local officials, as well as business and nonprofit leaders from across the nation. Despite its ungainly name, the committee’s task was important: to bridge the gap between what the science projected for climate change and preparedness action on the ground. Five days before Harvey hit Texas, your administration let the committee’s charter expire. We need to provide more help, not less, to communities impacted by climate change. I urge you to recharter the advisory committee. 

Over 200 years ago, Benjamin Franklin warned that “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” Harvey has brought true tragedy to our country. The trauma left in its wake will leave deep scars on our hearts and landscape for years to come. We need to prepare for more damaging flooding. Preparedness not only serves as insurance against failure, it’s the soundest possible investment in our future.

Alice C. Hill is a research fellow at the Stanford University Hoover Institution. She previously served as special assistant to President Obama and senior director for resilience policy at the National Security Council.