After record disasters, Congress must act to protect Americans

If it seems like 2017 was the beginning of the end times, science says you’re not crazy. Monster hurricanes flooded the Gulf and Caribbean, fires burned millions of acres in the West, and heat waves scorched the country. But another year set to join the hottest on record hasn’t unthawed a Congress that’s so far refused to face our preparedness deficit. Frankly, it’s unconscionable this Congress hasn’t done a single thing to strengthen America’s defenses against these worsening extreme weather threats.

Even in a year of chaotic national politics, the ravages of floods and fires in 2017 stand out. Hurricane Harvey was the wettest storm in U.S. history, dumping more than a year’s worth of water on Houston over the course of five days. Hurricane Irma shattered records by maintaining Category 5 status for three straight days and holding its peak intensity for 37 hours. And then there was Maria, the most intense and deadly of the three, catastrophically damaging Puerto Rico and killing nearly 1,000 people, according to a Center for Investigative Journalism report.

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For California, 2017 has been the deadliest and most destructive year for wildfires in history, killing at least 35 people, destroying over 8,000 structures, and destroying untold acres of fish and wildlife habitat. The area of forest burned annually in the Pacific Northwest has increased by nearly 5,000 percent since the early 1970s, and the area burned in the Southwest has increased by 1,200 percent. In 2015, wildfires were Washington state’s second-largest carbon polluters, behind only the transportation sector.

Below the monster headlines are at least a dozen other weather disasters in what will go down as a record-breaking year. Months-long drought in the Dakotas and Montana, a June hail and severe weather outbreak in Minnesota and the upper Midwest, and late winter tornado outbreaks across the central U.S. may not have seared into our consciousness like Harvey or Maria, but they were each on their own billion-dollar disasters.

If you believe climate researchers – and much as I listen to my doctor, I listen to climate scientists when they diagnose our planet’s health – it may be time to retire terms like “natural” disasters, acts of God, and blaming Mother Nature. In papers published this month, scientists analyzed dozens of last year’s global extreme weather events and in 78 percent of them found manmade global warming a “significant driver.”

Just a few days into 2018, we’ve already had another record-breaking storm, as the “Bomb Cyclone” storm brought Boston’s highest-ever tide. “If anyone wants to question global warming, just see where the flood zones are” – many didn’t flood a generation ago, said Boston Mayor Marty Walsh.

If Congress is serious about facing these threats, there are a series of reforms ready to help. First and most obviously, Congress needs to get its head out of the sand and take addressing climate-disrupting carbon pollution seriously.

To aid the victims of America’s megadisasters, Congress can pass a supplemental appropriations bill that helps communities hurt by disasters not only rebuild, but builds them better prepared than before against rising seas, heavier rainfall, and stronger storms. It can also grant the funding requests of governors of hard-hit states and territories, including Puerto Rico. It’s an ongoing national disgrace that a third of Puerto Ricans remain without electricity and tens of thousands more don’t have clean drinking water.

We must finally take long-overdue action to permanently reform the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). Over 120,000 NFIP claims were generated this year, making 2017 the second-largest claims year in the program’s history, paying out over $6.6 billion. When Harvey hit the Houston area, 80 percent of its flood victims didn’t have flood insurance, victims of outdated flood maps, poorly-understood risks, and unenforced protections. The NFIP is already on its second extension without Senate even having moved a reform bill out of committee. If we can’t modernize this program right after a parade of hurricanes fueled by abnormally warm water punished our coasts, what will it take for Congress to act?

Finally, it’s time to fix our wildland fire funding crisis. Our federal government doesn’t treat fires like other disasters, with firefighting paid for out of the regular Interior budget. From the 1995 to 2015 fiscal years, wildland fire costs jumped from 16 percent to an astonishing 52 percent of the U.S. Forest Service’s budget. This drains money to research and maintain the health of forests and make them less susceptible to the megafires being fueled by global warming.

"You never let a serious crisis go to waste,” Rahm Emanuel once said, “And what I mean by that it's an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before." But if right now, after all the climate change-linked disasters we saw in 2017, this Congress won’t step up to protect every American, when will we? How strong do the storms need to be, how high do seas have to go, and how intense do the megafires need to burn? It’s time for Congress to do its job to keep Americans safe.

Josh Saks is legislative director of the National Wildlife Federation.