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For a contentious president who never seems to shy away from doing battle, President Donald Trump has removed many of the weapons this country has developed to combat dramatic climate disturbance.
On Aug. 14, the Trump administration repealed requirements for environmental reviews and restrictions on government-funded building projects in flood-prone areas. This action, incorporated into the president’s sweeping proposal to shore up the aging U.S. infrastructure, is designed to speed approval of permits for highways, bridges, pipelines and other major building projects. It essentially revokes an Obama-era order that would have reduced exposure to flooding, sea level rise and the impact of strong downpours. These actions are done in conjunction with an administration that has recommended reduction in the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other emergency management and weather-related agencies, while also failing to fill most leadership positions at those agencies as well.
The administration has also decided to disband the Federal Advisory Panel for the National Climate Assessment. This group, made up of thought leaders from academia, local governments and the corporate sector, is charged with helping policymakers and private-sector officials incorporate the government’s climate analysis into long-term planning. The group issues a scientific report on climate to the president every four years. Once its 2018 report is complete, the panel will be disbanded. In a sense, the report of this group is another arrow in the quiver of the nation’s climate defenses, and the president has thrown this to the wind.
These actions will throw into reverse the ongoing momentum to create a more resilient-built environment throughout the United States. As this article is being written, the terrible results from Hurricane Harvey and its “worst in Texas history” 40 inches of rain on Houston, are being assessed. Hurricane Katrina, in 2005, provided a tragic case study on the fragility of seemingly stable structures, as the storm brought a small, poor southern city to the brink of chaos and devastated entire neighborhoods. And Hurricane Sandy certainly intensified the sense of urgency surrounding the need for resilience when it swept into New York in 2012. It should be noted that this is not a coastal phenomenon.
In 2016 alone, inland mid-Atlantic states were also impacted. Ellicott City, Md., was hit by 6 inches of rain in two hours, with the resulting two fatalities and large swaths of destruction in the city, and West Virginia earlier in the year sustained 23 fatalities in massive flooding of coal mining regions.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the environmental costs in 2016 totaled the 2nd highest annual number of U.S. billion-dollar disasters, behind the 16 events that occurred in 2011. Many of the human and capital consequences of weather-related events are avoidable with common sense mitigation strategies and advanced planning. A 2005 study funded by FEMA and conducted by the National Institute of Building Sciences’ Multi-hazard Mitigation Council found every dollar spent on mitigation would save $4 in losses. Improved building code requirements during the past decade have been the unifying force in driving high-performing and more resilient building envelopes. The National Institute of Building Sciences’ 2017 report to the president cited resilience as a key factor in construction requirements going forward.
A 2017 FEMA report sounds the alarm that many of the nation’s 50 million school children are at risk because of aging school buildings, or buildings that do not meet basic resilience standards to withstand a natural disaster, or located in a flood plane. The FEMA report, “Safer, Stronger, Smarter: A Guide to Improving School Natural Hazard Safety” states, “Many of our nation’s school buildings are older unreinforced masonry structures that are vulnerable to severe damage and collapse in the next earthquake, or are of lighter frame construction that is vulnerable to other types of natural hazards such as a tornado, hurricane, high winds, or flash flooding.”
In fact, as of 2014, according to FEMA, the average public school building was 44 years old. And while some of these schools have undergone major renovation, “the original construction of numerous school buildings pre-dates many of the modern building code requirements protecting occupants from natural hazards such as earthquakes, floods, high winds, and tsunamis.” In other words, millions of school children are being educated in buildings that are using 20th century construction standards to meet 21st century hazards.
Resilience is more than durability; it encompasses maintaining functionality of critical systems despite adverse conditions. Hospitals, fire and police stations and other critical facilities can’t merely endure a trauma; they also need to continue to serve their designated functions during and after disruptive events to enable first responders to monitor conditions and lead recovery efforts. Engineering and retrofitting these buildings to the highest standards of resiliency can save lives in emergency situations.
Under the Trump administration, we are now faced with the unraveling of cost-saving and life-saving strategies that we know work. Sadly, without the necessary criteria for a hardened infrastructure we may, in fact, be creating a dangerous and expensive equation for American citizens. Unless he changes his mind and reinstates the upgraded requirements, this president is failing to keep us safe from a clear and present danger.
Jared Blum is chair of the Environmental and Energy Study Institute.
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