2017-09-13 / Opinions

Now is not time for cutting funds

Two weeks after Hurricane Harvey thrashed Texas and with Hurricane Irma barreling down on Florida, the Federal Emergency Management Agency was reportedly within a day of running out of money before Congress finally gritted its teeth and voted for more money for disaster relief.

FEMA, the agency responsible for disaster response and recovery, was spending at a rate of $9.3 million an hour after Harvey submerged Houston, Texas. It burned through half of its $2.14 billion Disaster Relief Fund in five days, and that was before Hurricane Irma raked along Puerto Rico, flattened the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Florida Keys, and pummeled mainland Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.

While it is laudable that Congress acted to solve the problem before money ran out, it is not laudable that it waited until the last day possible. Congress has become inured to waiting until the last minute to do even its most basic duty — protecting the country and keeping government programs already passed into law funded and running. Even worse is the fact that the Republican leadership in Congress had been poised to approve a budget proposal by President Donald Trump that would cut disaster relief programs across the Department of Homeland Security by 9 percent. The Coast Guard, which rescued more than 3,000 people from Houston in a single day, would be cut by 30 percent.

The budget would also cut the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which rebuilds housing after disasters, the National Weather Service, which predicts storms like Harvey, Irma and Jose, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, which researches coastal flooding dangers and helps communities prepare, and NASA, whose satellites help NWS and NOAA understand weather patterns and climate change. It would also make drastic cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency, just when it needs to clean up tons of toxic, cancer-causing waste washed all over Houston by the hurricane.

It’s hardly understandable that politicians in Washington would seek to destroy programs whose main purpose is saving lives and property. Imagine if these cuts are made, and there is another similar, or even worse, hurricane season next year. Or even more hurricanes this season. We just passed the 11th letter of the alphabet, and there have been two Category 4 storms and one Category 5. Until this year, one of the worst storms of the past 50 years was Wilma, the 23rd named storm of 2005.

All the while, administration officials, including Kentucky native Scott Pruitt, are refusing to talk about climate change, saying it was “not appropriate” to talk about climate change during a hurricane.

While no one is or can say categorically that Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma were caused by climate change, the trend is clear. Deadly hurricanes are becoming more common, not less. There were 34 Category 4 and 5 hurricanes in the Atlantic Basin in the past 20 years. There were only 22 in the previous 20 years.

It seems clear to us that weather patterns are changing, severe weather events are becoming more common, and flooding in coastal areas is becoming worse. The vast majority of scientists — 97 percent by most estimates — agree that humans are causing those changes.

Hurricanes are fed by warm water, and the oceans are getting warmer. According to NOAA, ocean temperatures in the area where Hurricane Irma formed are 0.5 to 1 degree Celsius warmer than average. Because of those measurements, the Hurricane Prediction Center is predicting a more active than normal hurricane season. The number of hurricanes won’t necessarily increase, but their intensity is predicted to be greater. Sea level is rising — 2.6 inches between 1993 and 2007, according to NOAA — and nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population lives in coastal cities. Those communities have seen an increase in the frequency of nuisance flooding of 300 to 900 percent over the past 50 years, but the worry isn’t nuisance flooding as much as storms. With higher sea levels, storm surges push farther and farther inland, causing more property damage and more deaths.

Hurricane Katrina showed just how ill-prepared the United States really was for a major hurricane. More than 1,800 people died during that storm. As a direct result of Katrina, more money was added to the budget for the nation’s preparedness agencies, and new protocols were put in place. Because of the new resources, the death toll from Hurricane Harvey and Irma combined was less than 80.

Now the White House and Congress want to roll back those efforts, just as all of the evidence shows they are needed more now than ever before. In fact, the president said last weekend that he wants “dramatic tax cuts” because of the hurricane.

We believe that as it relates to hurricanes, “dramatic tax cuts” will result in three things: dramatic damage from future hurricanes, dramatic news footage of people waiting to be rescued by Coast Guard helicopters that never arrive, and dramatically less help for communities to recover.

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