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Sunday, March 11, 2018

Paying for weather disasters ~ responding without planning

There's no answer about how to budget for weather disasters. 

Frankly, God only knows where the money for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) comes from after disasters strike, because the cost of responding to the growing numbers of back to back weather caused havoc in recent years must be exceeding appropriations set aside to pay for recovery efforts.  

Nevertheless, the Trump administration and Scott Pruitt, the Secretary charged with helping to protect the environment, are in denial about how to prepare for the long term impact of weather disasters, lost electricity, spoiled food, death tolls and property damage.  Instead, the Republicans insist the growing number of events must be responded to but not necessarily something that must be anticipated.  

This essay is an interesting perspective, by Amy Davidson Sorkin, in the September 25, 2017 The New Yorker.

In the Dark,” Amy Davidson Sorkin explores how America is dealing with hurricane disasters.  (This link is also a podcast.)

Donald Trump was asked to survey the damage from Hurricane Irma when he went to his estate in Mar-a-Lago, in Florida.  He was asked about the 5 million people in Florida who did not have electricity. But Trump said that repairs to the electrical grid were going well, thanks to what he called "the largest assemblage of human beings ever in one are for power." 

Indeed, in Florida alone, tens of thousands of linemen were on the job, brought in from as far away as California -some of them sleeping in trailers at the Sarasota Fairgrounds, where the Wall Street Journal reported they had named their encampment the Hotel Sarasota.

Similar efforts were under way in Alabama, Georgia, the Carolinas and in Puerto Rico, where a dilapidated power system had collapsed in the first winds of the storm.  Still, according to one estimate, three out of four Floridians were without power at one point, and a great many remained so for weeks after the storm. In a comparison of NASA space photographs taken of Florida at night, before and after Irma, the clusters of cities and suburbs that are normally illuminated, disappeared into a topography of flooding.  

In some respects, Hurricane Irma was not as devastating as it might have been; Miami and Tampa were spared a direct hit. But, the Keys were left largely uninhabitable, and Jacksonville, three hundred miles to the north, suffered severe, unexpected flooding, illustrating what me be the most important lessor of Irma - how close o the margins many Americans are living. That lesson involved, most glaringly climate change; Irma and Hurricane Harvey, which struck two weeks earlier, are reminders that we live in a era of standardized disaster, with cities sprawling across what are now, effectively, flood plains. But, in other areas, too, relating to infrastructure, income inequality, and health care, Irma provided a case study in precariousness.

As temperatures in Florida reached the middle nineties, the police chief of Hollywood, Florida, announced that eight patients at a rehabilitation center that had lost power and, with it, air-conditioning- had died of what were apparently heat related causes.  The Miami Herald described retirement communities that had no working elevators, and where food and medicines that were supposed to be refrigerated were spoiling.  In another measure of desperation, in Orange County, an emergency crew found three members of a family dead, apparently of carbon-monoxide poising, from fumes emitted by a generator, that had bought and set up; a child in the house had called 9-11.

There were also reminders of the pathology of the federal government's near-bankrupt flood-insurance system, which encourages over development in vulnerable areas, and subsidizes the coverage of many august structures, such as Trump's estate at Mar-a-Lago. Even so, according to the Associated Press, only forty-one percent of homes in Florida's coastal counties have food insurance. 

In many cases, those policies fail to cover damage from mold, which, in the heat, can set in almost immediately and persist indefinitely, compromising a house's structural integrity and its residents' health. In Houston, standing water left from Hurricane Harvey is also breeding clouds of disease carrying mosquitoes.

When Senator Mitch McConnell the Majority Leader was asked how he could square the Republican Party's budget-cutting priorities with the need to respond to the hurricane disasters, he brushed the question aside by saying that America is a "bighearted country", that is always willing "to cover these emergencies." 

But, our political system often has difficulty figuring out what constitutes an emergency. Is it a child missing school because of an asthma attack brought on my mold, or a parent missing a mortgage payment because of a shift skipped during hurricane evaluations?  

Half of all American households live paycheck to paycheck. 

It's alarmingly easy with one moderate gust to get badly off track There was an echo, in McConnell's assertion, of the Republican Party's response to criticisms that dismantling Obamacare would cost millions of people their health which it dismissed with the blithe insistence that Americans will never let other Americans simply die in the street.

When Tom Bossert, Trump's home land security adviser was asked at a press briefing whether the onslaught of hurricanes had led the Trump administration to reconsider some of its environmental policies, such as the abandonment of the Paris climate accords, he said that it would take seriously not "the cause" of the climate change but "the things that we observe." 

That is a prescription for nothing more than repeatedly rushing to rescue, while remaining ill prepared for the long term. 
Secretary Scott Pruitt head of the EPA doesn't want to get "sensitive" about climate change

Similarly when Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), said that it would be "very-very insensitive" to talk about the climate crisis (OMG!at this juncture, one could only wonder whose feelings he was most concerned about. "I wish that he would have been here when people ran from high-rises," Miami's mayor Toras Regaldo, said of Pruitt.

Meanwhile, Trump infuriated members of his own Republican party by acceding to a Democratic effort in Congress to tie a Harvey hurricans relief package to a three month extension of the debt ceiling. Hurricane-relief money will be inadequately spent, though, if it does not address the endemic issues that make hurricanes more dangerous - or shore up those aspects of government oversight which mitigated the effects of Harvey and Irma. 

By all accounts, lives were saved by more stringent building codes, which were put in place after Hurricanes Andrew in 1992 and Katrina in 2005, and whose fastidiousness Trump has decried; and significant parts of the cleanup will be in the hands of the EPA, for which Trump has proposed deep cuts.

America is a rich country and still a lucky one. The linemen are not the only assemblage deployed to respond to the hurricanes. Tens of thousands of members of the military and the reserves were available to assist in the operations.  Our big cities did not drown this time. A more acute harbinger of the face of climate change might be the ravaging of islands in the Caribbean and the floods in South Asia the same week, which killed thousands of people. 

But, with each such storm, the lives of certain Africans get worse in ways that are more difficult to assess. The disasters of the age of climate change may come on like a loud riot, but they can also set in like a quiet rot. ~  (MaineWriter ~ and the 2018 hurricane season will be upon us just in time for the 2018 mid term elections.)


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