Harvey and Climate Change
I have a message for Nick Kristof and everybody else who thinks that Harvey's devastation is a perfect occasion for discussion of climate change.
It's not that I don't care about climate change, but there is something much more urgent to deal with. The Houston catastrophe may have been exacerbated by climate change (or not) but much of the disaster can be traced directly to failure to plan for an almost entirely predictable flood event. Houston and the Texas coast grew recklessly and essentially planlessly and its citizens paid the price for their governments' failure to plan. Houston and other coastal cities will rebuild, but decisions made in the next year or so can profoundly affect what happens the next time a big hurricane comes ashore in the US, and there will be many such next times, starting as soon as next week. By contrast, what we do about climate change won't do anything to protect our coastal cities anytime in the next several decades.
David Conrad and Larry Larson, writing in the Washington Post, discuss what we know how to do but didn't do.
After that disaster [the catastrophic Midwest floods of 1993], the Clinton administration directed an experienced federal interagency task force to report on the flood and its causes. That report, “Sharing the Challenge ,” was prepared by Army Brig. Gen. Gerry E. Galloway and released in 1994. It made more than 100 recommendations for policy and program changes to address and reduce flood risks and improve the nation’s floodplain management everywhere, not just in the area along the Mississippi River that had been underwater. The government found that many policies were encouraging — rather than discouraging — people to build homes and businesses in places with increasingly high risks of flooding by allowing new building in those areas, constructing insufficient flood-control projects that give residents a false sense of security and subsidizing redevelopment after disasters without mitigation. That often compounded the costs and problems caused by floods.
Ultimately, though, very little changed. The lessons of 1993 were largely ignored, especially in parts of the country that were most vulnerable to flooding — such as Houston. Experts and policymakers have known for a long time that we need to change the way we approach flood mitigation and prevention, but that hasn’t stopped the nation from making the same mistakes over and over. Now, as the federal government prepares to spend billions more cleaning up from catastrophic floods, we’re in danger of doing it again. . .
The Clinton administration’s report seemed like it might change things at first. It suggested the government should offer voluntary buyouts to owners of buildings that flooded repeatedly, clearing the most at-risk land of businesses and residences and leaving it as open space that could be devoted to flood-tolerant uses such as parks, recreation areas and wetlands. Especially in states such as Missouri, Iowa and Illinois that had been hit hard by the 1993 disaster, governors supported this new approach. More than 10,000 buildings were bought so their owners could move outside floodplains. The federal government spent $121 million on this type of mitigation after the 1993 floods — acquiring land or elevating, relocating or flood-proofing buildings. That investment probably saved $600 million in disaster relief: The National Institute of Building Sciences estimates that each dollar spent on flood mitigation saves $5 in future flood damage.
Don't mistake me. Human caused climate change is real and almost certainly implicated in events like this year's fire catastrophes in the West, but we need to patch the hole in the boat before we worry about how deep the ocean will be. Planning is urgent, and yes, planning should take into account climate change, but more uregently, basic hydraulics.