As I watched the news coverage of hurricane Irma bearing down on Florida, I was struck by our vulnerability in a universe we cannot control. I was surprised to see how many times the expert predictions of Irma’s storm path turned out to be wrong — with devastating consequences to people and property.
The natural disasters that hit southern Texas and Florida in quick succession demand a different approach to how we protect our citizens. Scientists agree the earth’s temperature is rising, so the confluence of mammoth hurricanes like Harvey and Irma, as well as the unchecked spread of wildfires in Western states, can no longer be called rare “500-year events,” but unfortunately, a sign of things to come. We need to be better prepared.
Both storms could cost the country upward of $200 billion to rebuild. This urgent need for federal emergency funds is likely to upend the already difficult partisan budget process.
The idea that Congress must cut other essential spending to meet the needs of communities that have been devastated has proved a non-starter. Seeking a down payment on essential emergency aid to Texas and Florida, President Trump sought to avoid delays due to partisan wrangling by working with Democratic leaders willing to lift the debt ceiling on a short-term basis.
But the recently-passed $15 billion in emergency aid is likely to be used up by the middle of October. A divided Congress will find itself hard-pressed to appropriate somewhere between $100-$200 billion more, the estimated amount needed to rebuild in Florida and Texas, while at the same time addressing other budget priorities and tax cuts.
Deficit hawks will be pitted against representatives from areas affected by the hurricanes. If these recent disasters were only a one-time financial crisis, Congress might muddle through this providing some relief to residents of Florida and Texas while other budget priorities are shortchanged.
Adequate funding for natural disasters should be a given, not treated as a part of zero-sum political horse trading over budgets.
A completely new approach is needed, and here’s why:
Rising sea levels indicate these natural disasters will be more frequent going forward. “We think that Harvey type of rainfalls will become noticeably more frequent as the century goes on,” said Kerry Emanuel, an atmospheric scientist at MIT. The Los Angeles Times cites research that shows that “the strongest storms, Category 3, 4, and 5 storms will likely become more frequent.”
The Dallas Morning News this month cited a Harris County Flood Control District report from two decades ago, that predicted with "chilling accuracy" a reality experienced by thousands of homeowners in the Houston area. The report proposed a $400 million fix of the aging reservoir that could have pushed water toward the Houston Ship Channel more quickly. It also suggested buying out properties at risk and regulating development in the area. These reasonably low-cost infrastructure investments could have saved billions needed now for rebuilding, while protecting lives and property.
Three years before the catastrophe of Katrina, a five-part front page series in the New Orleans Times-Picayune warned that not a single levy in southern Louisiana could withstand a Category 5 hurricane. Officials ignored the report’s prediction that the city would be submerged when “the big one” arrived, which it did, with frightening force, killing 1800 people.
Being fully prepared, instead of merely responding to natural disasters, requires a sustained financial commitment.
A 3 percent surtax could be set aside to deal with natural disasters. Based on projected 2017 tax revenues, a surtax would raise just over $100 billion annually that could be used not only to cover emergencies and rebuilding, but also to make infrastructure improvements that might have spared much of the damage in the Houston area during hurricane Harvey, and in New Orleans during Katrina in 2005.
Before Hurricane Harvey, the last major hurricane to hit the U.S. mainland was Wilma in October of 2005, an unprecedented 142-month stretch. The Trump administration had proposed sharp budget cuts to FEMA, as well as the National Weather Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which helps communities prepare for hurricanes. Obviously, the president’s priorities should and have changed in the wake of these major hurricanes, but an ongoing commitment to preparedness is needed now.
The modest surtax I’m suggesting, dedicated solely to prevention and recovery from natural disasters, would enable our federal government to strengthen infrastructure, save lives and protect property. At the same time, it would take disaster preparedness out of the political budget fray.