Update: White House Reconsidering Repeal of Floodplain Rule Upgrades Post Harvey
President Trump is reportedly having second thoughts about the executive order he signed lowering floodplain build requirements just two weeks before Hurricane Harvey swamped Houston.
As BL covered previously, President Trump recently signed an executive order to revoke environmental reviews and new, Obama-era regulations aimed at mitigating the deleterious effects of floods and sea-level rise. The rollback was billed as an effort to speed up infrastructure projects, particularly government-funded projects in flood-prone areas. The immediate effect would hasten approvals of permits for highways, bridges, pipelines and other infrastructure projects.
The Obama-era standard upgrades were meant to ensure infrastructure would be more resilient to flooding and rising sea levels. The reversal is part of a sweeping and ongoing effort by the Trump Administration to undo as much of the policy related to climate change as possible.
Soon after signing the order, Hurricane Harvey began to strengthen before eventually making multiple landfalls and dumping a historic and unprecedented deluge onto Houston’s low, flat floodplain that serves as habitat to America’s fourth largest city. In Harvey’s wake, President Trump is reportedly having second thoughts.
The flooding continues with some dams set to spillover into neighborhood still for weeks to come, although in relatively limited areas. Much of Houston is dry and working again, including the downtown and the airport. But the comprehensive coverage shows dire situations for manys Texans this weekend, particularly in Beaumont, where people lack power and clean running water.
On Monday, FEMA estimated Harvey had directly impacted the homes of 450,000 people and would leave 30,000 people homeless. The slow receding flood is raising concerns about additional rainfall and more flooding. Hurricane Irma is projected to run the spine of Florida and split either east or west. Concerned officials are now bussing hundreds of people to shelters in San Antonio.
On the ground in the Houston area, the floodwaters have done their work even where they have receded. Mold can start growing just one day after the flooding. Fungi too and many other micro-organisms. “Mold appeared almost instantly,” Alan Tillotson of Cypress, a community about 25 miles northwest of downtown Houston told the Washington Post. Alan and his wife, Vicki, returned to their neighborhood after fleeing Harvey for most of last week. When they started pulling off drywall and found big black circles of fuzz behind it. “We had it growing visibly on the materials we were removing. The goal is to get all the wet stuff out before it becomes a science experiment.”
Exposure can trigger a stuffy nose, irritated eyes, cough or respiratory problems. Even dead spores can negatively affect human health, so killing it won’t do the job. Mold must be removed to be completely remediated.
Even more potentially problematic for people in the Houston area, floodwater carries all kinds of dangerous particulates and pathogens picked up from contamination in sewage and chemical pollution. Several industrial facilities and infrastructure elements have sustained significant damage. Numerous release of hazardous substances are already documented. For example, air monitors have detected Benzene, a cancer-causing compound the subject of much litigation, in high concentrations. A plume of benzene was detected near homes and businesses outside a Valero Energy oil refinery in east Houston, reported the Houston Chronicle, raising concerns among environmentalists and city officials who say the compound is nearly twice the state limits for short-term exposure.
Seeing the damage of Hurricane Harvey and now staring down the strongest hurricane to ever form in the Atlantic in Hurricane Irma—with wind gusts reportedly exceeding an incredible 200 miles per hour—the Trump administration is reportedly rethinking its approach to flood standards, the Washington Post first reported. Specifically, the administration is considering whether to issue similar requirements to the ones they reversed or just reverse the previous order. A man who understands construction and lifetime project costs, President Trump apparently firmly grasps the need to redesign, rebuild or relocated roads and bridges to higher areas in flood prone regions.
The Post reports that White House homeland security adviser Tom Bossert said the administration had already planned to replace the standard Trump rolled back last month. The new, Trump-administration standards would have been part of a “broader executive order on infrastructure.” After seeing the damage from Harvey, “It might expedite our efforts to reach coordinated consensus here as we institute policy,” Bossert added.
Roy Wright, FEMA’s deputy associate administrator for insurance and mitigation, did not indicate to the Post what the height level requirements might be in a new Trump standard, but did make reference to the policy response for new projects built after Hurricane Sandy.
Rafael Lemaitre, former director of public affairs at FEMA who worked on the Obama-era order, told Reuters when Trump first signed the floodplain order the President was undoing "the most significant action taken in a generation" to safeguard U.S. infrastructure.
"Eliminating this requirement is self-defeating; we can either build smarter now, or put taxpayers on the hook to pay exponentially more when it floods. And it will," he said. As we wrote previously:
They must. As the incidence and likelihood of extreme weather events increases, insurance companies are “not selling a risk aversion remedy to people,” Dan Kahan, a professor at Yale Law School who specializes in risk perception recently told Fortune. “[They’re] getting taken to the cleaners.”
And “there’s more rain in the forecast” and not nearly enough places are prepared to be tested by Mother Nature’s best punch. We need to redevelop our built-environment bigger, better, stronger and more sustainable. Armed today with better understanding of our world, better technology and perhaps even more noble intentions, we can rebuild in ways to benefit our economies, quality of place, piece of mind and even Mother Nature herself, who will all be better for our investment.
With more water coming, every infrastructure project in use today could potentially be tested. It will pass or fail when the next hurricane, flood or storm surge arrives. We’re trillions of dollars behind just in deferred maintenance for our built-environment and some of the water infrastructure in use today is a century old. Six hundred communities in the U.S., including Houston, operate storm sewer and wastewater sewers that share the same piping—which means that during storms, raw sewage gets washed into open waterways.
Instead of lowering standards and deferring maintenance, this seems like a moment to aim high. And start building higher. Elected with a mandate to rebuild and still historically low interest rates, and with the need for a huge infrastructure upgrade rising to crisis proportions, now would be a terrific time for President Trump to leverage his real estate acumen and get the country to work on a more resilient future.
For information about preparing for AND recovering from hurricanes and floods, please visit this EPA webpage.
The CDC recommends (PDF) numerous ways to remove mold after flooding, including:
Throwing out items that cannot be washed and disinfected, such as mattresses, rugs and carpets, upholstered furniture and books.
Removing and discarding wet/contaminated drywall and insulation.
- Cleaning all hard surfaces, including floors, wood and metal furniture, counters, appliances and plumbing fixtures, with hot water and laundry or dish detergent.