Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
Two weeks before Harvey hit Texas, a little-noticed executive action removed rules that would have held new infrastructure projects to a higher storm-proofing standard.
During a press conference two weeks ago, President Donald Trump largely skipped over an executive order on infrastructure to focus instead on the fatal white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Trump blamed “both sides” for the violence. The media followed his lead, focusing on his incendiary comments instead of the order at hand.
Little noticed at the time was an item that now belongs at the forefront. On August 15, Trump signed an executive order rolling back various environmental rules in order to streamline approvals for infrastructure projects. One of them was an Obama-era order that established a federal infrastructure standard to reduce the risk of flooding damage.
The Federal Flood Risk Management Standard—which President Barack Obama signed into effect in January 2015—set new goals for defining flood plains and mitigating the risk of construction over them. The standard was coordinated by the National Security Council and involved the input of governors, mayors, and other stakeholders. The Obama-era rule amended a 1977 executive order on floodplain management by asking agencies to seek a “practicable alternative” to any projects on floodplains that would have either short-term or long-term adverse effects.
The Obama rule gave federal agencies three ways to address flood risk in design and construction in floodplains: using methods informed by climate science, building two feet above the 100-year flood elevation, or building to the 500-year flood elevation.
Houston after Harvey would have been the first test of the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard. In the aftermath of this still-rolling storm, Houston and Texas may choose to rebuild with strict 500-year or 1,000-year flood standards in mind. But Texas has never shown any such foresight. The state is spending billions to build a Grand Parkway—a third beltway loop large enough to circumnavigate Rhode Island—around metro Houston, gobbling up larger and larger portions of the Katy Prairie, which is crucial to the natural mitigation of floods in Houston.
Obama’s 2015 executive order, of course, could not have prevented the the destruction of Hurricane Harvey. As recently as October 2016, federal agencies were still assessing the scope and meaning of Executive Order 13690.
“The [Federal Flood Risk Management Standard]’s use of these expanded floodplains is scaring the bejesus out of many in the flood risk management community,” wrote Scott Shapiro, managing partner for Downey Brand, in a 2015 post for a blog the law firm maintains on flood risk law.
One alarmist interpretation of the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard maintained that the federal government would no longer back mortgages on homes falling in 500-year floodplains, as Shapiro notes. The government rather insisted that the executive order applied exclusively to federal infrastructure projects and was meant to bring standards set by the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency up to the level of those used by some local governments. That question is now moot.
After the White House announced on Sunday that President Donald Trump will visit Texas on Tuesday to survey the damage wrought by Hurricane Harvey, Texas Governor Greg Abbott said early Monday morning that the president will not be visiting Houston. Instead, Trump will likely tour San Antonio or Corpus Christi.
The president’s security detail could distract from ongoing rescue efforts already set back by historic flooding. Trump’s diversion away from Houston will no doubt come as a relief for the beleaguered city. With a slight lull in rainfall predicted for Monday, Houston may catch a brief reprieve before the storm resumes its downpour later in the week.
The president nevertheless took action two weeks ago that will cast a much longer shadow over the recovery of Houston and other parts of the Gulf Coast of Texas and Louisiana smacked by the storm.
Trump’s enduring legacy after Harvey is not yet set. If he insists on including funds for a border wall with Mexico in any deal to raise the looming debt ceiling, the government could shut down, railroading federal aid efforts along the Gulf. At minimum, Trump has ensured that the federal government will play no role in making sure that Houston and Texas are better prepared for flooding in the future than they were today. They’re on their own.