Irma? Harvey?—We Need to Talk About Infrastructure. Now.

But if we don’t discuss flood protection, too, it’s meaningless.

September 08, 2017

One of the many restaurants in Bevil Oaks, Texas, that were severely damaged from Harvey.

Kim Brent/The Beaumont Enterprise via AP

As I type these words, three separate hurricanes are active in the Atlantic basin in various stages of formation. More are likely in store for the 2017 hurricane season, which doesn’t officially end until November 30. In fact, the season’s statistical peak happens to be this Sunday, September 10—the same day that Irma, one of the largest Atlantic storms ever recorded and one that has already devastated much of the Caribbean, is scheduled to make landfall in Florida.

As Floridians prepare for the worst, residents of southeastern Texas and the Louisiana coast are already coping with it. Just last week, Hurricane Harvey, another record-breaker, buried the region under as many as 51 inches of rain, killing 70 people and causing an estimated $180 billion in damages.

Recovery from this deadly string of storms will take years and hundreds of billions of dollars. It will also take hitherto unseen levels of cooperation between political parties and local, state, and federal governments concerning one of the most urgent issues facing our country. I’m talking about infrastructure. We need to figure out how to build our physical environments in such a way that we can minimize the damage from future storm events like Harvey and Irma, protect our vulnerable coastlines, and save lives.

Shortly after President Trump took office, bipartisan hopes were ever-so-briefly raised over talk of a $1 trillion infrastructure plan that the president said he’d like to see implemented. Then scandal and political paralysis set in. Infrastructure, as an idea, was effectively back-burnered by the administration—held in intellectual escrow in the form of a six-page fact sheet that was woefully short on details. Included with the president’s $4.1 trillion budget back in May was a proposed $200 billion in spending on new building over the next 10 years.

We heard little about a national infrastructure plan again until last month, when Trump issued an executive order that he said was designed to speed up the actualization of his plan. But bipartisan hopes were again dashed. For one thing, the executive order called for a complete gutting of the environmental permitting process that helps ensure large construction projects don’t adversely affect communities, natural resources, and habitat.

But Trump’s executive order also rolled back standards that would have required federal infrastructure projects to factor into their funding the increased intensity of storms and the heightened risks of flooding. In defending his decision to do away with these rules, which would help new infrastructure meet the realities posed by climate change, the president cited the need for these projects to get off the ground more quickly.

The last couple of weeks have shown Americans just how dangerously wrong the current administration has gotten it. These standards, put in place by President Obama in 2015, aren’t hindrances. They’re life-saving protections. As Joel Scata, an attorney working on water-related issues for NRDC, has pointed out on multiple occasions recently, rescinding or weakening these rules in the era of climate change amounts to an act of gross negligence at the federal level.

As of right now, there’s no need for climate activists to use the future tense when describing the effects of storms and flooding events. It’s not just “going to get worse.” It is worse.

But you don’t even have to believe in climate change to see that this is true. You just have to believe in hurricanes.

We need, desperately, to move infrastructure to the front burner of our national conversation. And this conversation can’t be one-sided, with one party or one president dictating the terms to the rest of the country. When this horrible hurricane season is finally over and we’re in the midst of surveying the extensive, even epic, aftermath, the need for a new national program will be more evident than ever. We’ll see just how well—or how poorly—our bridges, roads, tunnels, highways, dams, levees, drainage systems, sewage systems, and other infrastructure served us when they were needed the most. When lives were at stake. When the futures of cities, states, and entire regions were on the line.

President Trump is actually right about two things: We need to speed things up. And to my ears, $1 trillion sounds about right in terms of initial investment. But he’s dead wrong if he thinks that curtailing environmental protections or rolling back flood management standards is going to make our infrastructure better, stronger, or more resilient. Exactly the opposite is true. Infrastructure can’t be sold as a jobs program or as a means of sparking economic growth. In places like Houston and Florida, it’s already a matter of life and death.

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