5 Things Congress Can Do to Help Communities Devastated by Hurricane Harvey

September 5, 2017 | 4:55 pm
Photo: Texas National Guard/CC BY (Flickr)
Rob Cowin
Former Contributor

As a proud Houstonian, with family living in Houston, I was heart-broken to see my home town devastated by hurricane Harvey and the apocalyptic flooding that will surely bring with it other serious health and safety problems long after the water recedes. The true cost of this disaster won’t be known for some time, but in the midst of this devastation we’ve seen Americans at their best, coming together, taking care of each other, loving each other, doing right by their fellow brothers and sisters; all of us Americans, but more importantly all of us human. Now it’s time for Congress to step up and follow that example.

People need help and they don’t care about political or fiscal ideological purity. They need money and other support services so they can begin to rebuild their lives, and prevent future storm events from laying waste to the city again. So what can Congress do to help Houston and other communities devastated by Hurricane Harvey when they come back from August recess?

  1. Pass Near-term Disaster Aid

The first thing they can do is pass a clean short-term disaster relief package (one without ideological amendments or special interest spending) while making sure to continue to work on more long-term funding and solutions long after this storm has dropped out of the headlines. And Congress should work to target aid to Texas and Louisiana’s most economically vulnerable populations.

At a time like this, the worst thing Congress can do is slow the process of disaster relief by quibbling over fiscal policy. It took several months to pass the $50.7 billion Hurricane Sandy aid package because of disagreements over certain types of spending in the bill. Most of the Texas congressional delegation put rigid political and fiscal ideology before their fellow Americans in need, and shamefully voted against disaster aid for Sandy victims. This time, we need Congress to pass an immediate bipartisan short-term relief package to help Houston until they accurately quantify the damage from this disaster and thoughtfully put together something for the longer term.

The truth is much of the Texas congressional delegation doesn’t deserve the support of the American taxpayer because of their votes on Sandy aid… but the people of Houston do.

  1. Extend and Reform Flood Insurance

Congress needs to finally do the tough work of tackling the vital but fiscally-challenged National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), which provides affordable, government-backed flood insurance to roughly 5 million property owners. At present, the NFIP has elements that actually work as a disincentive to smart development/building practices or preparedness efforts because in many cases flood risk maps do not reflect true risks, and the cost of this insurance is artificially low, subsidized by the US taxpayer. While that may seem helpful to coastal property owners and folks living in flood plains, the reality is that it leaves them ill prepared for growing flood risks.

The NFIP must be reformed and strengthened to build resilience in flood-prone areas, including incentives for investments in measures that can help reduce flood risks for individual home owners and communities. We need to phase in increases to these insurance premiums so they come into line with the growing flood risks we are seeing from coastal erosion, sea-level rise, and extreme precipitation exacerbated by climate change. Any NFIP reform must also include affordability provisions to make sure that the increased cost of insurance doesn’t unfairly burden our most economically vulnerable communities.

If flood risk maps and insurance costs more accurately reflected flood risks based on the latest scientific information, property owners and developers would likely make wiser decisions regarding where they build, how they build, and how much they invest in infrastructure that supports disaster preparedness.

To accurately account for flood risk we also need to update FEMA’s antiquated flood risk maps using the latest science, and that means Congress must pass appropriations to fully fund the National Flood Mapping Program.

  1. Strengthen Flood Risk Standards

About a year and half ago President Obama issued an executive order to strengthen the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard (FFRMS), which mandated that federal agencies use more protective design standards when building or rebuilding in flood-prone areas. This was basically just common sense and potentially big savings for US taxpayers, whom foot the bill for federal construction (and repairs to federal infrastructure that communities depend on).

But on August 15th of this year, just about a week before Hurricane Harvey hit, President Trump issued his own executive order repealing the strengthened FFRMS citing over-burdensome regulations. With climate change helping to increase the ferocity of storm events, as well as flooding from rising sea levels and heavy precipitation, we must start to prioritize the implementation of strong standards and funding for disaster preparedness.

Implementing science-based building standards like FFRMS saves lives and money. Congress should take this out of hands of the executive branch by codifying the strengthened FFRMS into law. 

  1. Strengthen Chemical Safety Standards


The Arkema facility explosion, resulting from hurricane-caused power outages, is but one example of the harrowing consequences that ignoring vital updates to chemical safety regulations poses in real time.  Chemical facilities like the Arkema facility in Crosby, Texas surround frontline communities and put them at an additional risk of toxic exposure. In addition, first responders, like the hospitalized deputies who entered the Arkema facility, are at particular risk when these facilities fail to implement basic coordination standards.

Acting on a petition filed by the chemical industry, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt delayed the implementation of critical updates to the Risk Management Plan (RMP) standards for 90 days on March 16, 2017, and then for an additional 20 months on June 9, 2017. This updated regulation, finalized by the Obama administration after an exhaustive process lasting more than three years, contained common-sense provisions such as better coordination with first responders, better information sharing with local communities, and research into safer technologies that could reduce the impact of shutdowns and disasters. The communities on the fenceline of chemical facilities like Arkema, the emergency personnel responding to any accidents, and the workers at these plants, all would benefit from this update.

Congress should urge the EPA to strengthen chemical facility safety through specific language in the appropriations process.

  1. Fund Science, Technology and Preparedness

If we had a time machine and could send the president back in it, do you think he might reconsider his proposed $667 million cut to FEMA state and local grants that support disaster relief?  Perhaps House Appropriators would also like to go back in time, seeing as they recently passed a budget that significantly cut NOAA’s satellite capacity and NASA’s earth science program—both of which are critical to our ability to forecast and prepare for disasters from storms and other natural phenomenon.

The FY 2018 budget provides Congress a real opportunity to build on lessons learned from Hurricane Harvey and make wise decisions to help protect communities and ensure taxpayer money is well spent. And with the House set to take up 8 spending bills this week (including the budgets of FEMA, NASA, and NOAA), now is a critical moment for Congress to learn the lessons from Hurricane Harvey. Here are some vital programs that Congress must fully fund or increase to help us prepare and protect communities from the next extreme weather event:

  • Reject the House cut to NASA’s Earth Science Program – 11% cut
    • The Earth Science Program of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) develops, launches, and maintains a network of satellites that collect data on Earth’s surface and atmosphere. Scientists, researchers, and individuals across the country rely on this data, and the continuity of its collection, to understand, forecast, and respond to changes in land use, pollutant emissions, atmospheric chemistry, weather and climate, and other phenomena that define life on Earth. This data and research is critical to improving predictive capacity that impacts agricultural commodities, water management, infrastructure, risk assessment for the reinsurance business, public health and safety, and national security.
  • Reject the House cut to NOAA’s National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS) – 23% cut
    • NESDIS’s Environmental Satellite Observing Systems program procures, launches, and operates satellites that provide critical data and information products to scientists, weather forecasters, and first responders. NESDIS’ satellites provide 93 percent of the data used by the National Weather Service’s models and support high-resolution, near-real time weather and storm tracking. NESDIS also operates the Search and Rescue satellite system and monitors global sea ice conditions and other essential safety information.
  • Reject the House cut to NOAA’s Climate Research at their Office of Atmospheric Research (OAR) – 19% cut
    • The OAR supports a network of laboratories, universities, and cooperative institutes across the country studying ocean acidification, aquaculture, severe weather, climate change, and other Earth processes. The Climate Research program studies short- and long-term climate trends and develops information and products for decision-makers and communities working to plan for and respond to climate change. We know that warmer air holds more moisture, and that warmer water make hurricanes more likely and more intense. The link between climate change and extreme weather is profound, and we cannot prepare for one without understanding the other.
  • Increase funding for FEMA Disaster Relief and Pre-Disaster Mitigation Programs (President Trump proposed cutting FEMA disaster preparedness funding by 61%)


Those who care about helping Texas and Louisiana recover quickly, and want to prevent the next disaster from taking a brutal toll on your community, should let your members of Congress know that funding the vital work mentioned above is important to you. Drop by your Congressional representative’s office to remind them, or give them a phone call. Don’t let Congress write a check for disaster relief while ignoring the science-based programs and technologies that help us forecast and prepare for extreme weather, keeping us safe.