Elected Democrats have remained mostly cautious in assessing Trump's handling of Harvey
Activists say Trump's build-now, worry-later climate approach undermines his response
Minutes before he veered into a prolonged back-and-forth with reporters two weeks ago, blaming “both sides” for the violence days earlier in Charlottesville, Virginia, President Donald Trump unveiled an executive order killing planned regulations on new infrastructure building.
Among them was a rule that would have required federally funded projects to account for flood risks. Ten days later, Hurricane Harvey made its first landfall in Texas, where it remains now, dumping trillions of gallons of rain on an already inundated and devastated region.
Trump’s build-now, worry-later climate approach, activists say, undermines his administration’s response to the catastrophic flooding in the region – leaving cities like Houston, especially its most at-risk populations, increasingly vulnerable to future disasters.
“While Trump is speaking to people impacted by the storm, his policies themselves are going to make the lives of people in these storm-prone areas worse,” said Thanu Yakupitiyage, the US communications manager for 350.org, the grassroots climate change organization. “If you look at places like Houston and Corpus Christi, it is vulnerable communities, working-class communities and communities of color, who are going to be the most impacted.”
While elected Democrats have remained mostly cautious in their assessment of Trump’s handling of the ongoing disaster, activists are anxious to connect the dire scenes across Texas to new federal policies they describe as ignorant or hostile to climate science, and ill-suited to aid the poor and working classes.
“We’re seeing history repeat itself,” Yakupitiyage said. “You have these intense storms, then the recovery effort, all of this money gets put in, but what is the longer term plan to really deal with climate change impact?”
Democrats take narrow aim at Trump
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, a Democrat, was one of dozens of big city leaders, along with fellow Texans in Dallas, Austin and San Antonio, to pledge continued support for the Paris climate agreement after Trump announced he was withdrawing the US in June. But with much-needed federal aid in the balance, Democrats have narrowed their public concerns.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, whose congressional district covers downtown Houston, told CNN on Monday she was confident the House was positioned to move a strong aid package.
“I think the real question,” she added, “is if the President of the United States (will) be part of that leadership with a commitment not to shut this government down.”
Trump threatened last week, before the storm hit, to do just that if Congress did not write funding for his southern border wall into a federal spending bill. Lee told PBS Newshour she planned to send a letter to Trump, warning now would be “the worst time” for any kind of interruption in Washington.
With emergency rescue efforts ongoing, especially in Houston, where the rain continues to fall, high-profile Democratic critics on Capitol Hill have mostly avoided commenting directly on Trump’s response. Instead, they have zeroed in on a series of controversial decisions, unrelated to the storm but made public at the same time Harvey settled in over Houston days ago.
“As a hurricane prepares to devastate Texas, Donald Trump is more concerned with kicking people out of the military and pardoning a racist sheriff who broke the law,” Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren said in a Facebook post late Friday night, making reference to Trump’s pardon of former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. “Every time we think our President can’t go any lower, he goes lower.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer delivered a similar message in a series of tweets, accusing Trump of “using the cover of the storm to pardon a man who violated a court’s order to stop discriminating against Latinos and ban courageous transgender men and women from serving our nation’s Armed Forces.”
“The only reason to do these right now,” he concluded, “is to use the cover of Hurricane Harvey to avoid scrutiny.”
Worries over a private takeover of the rebuilding efforts
Climate change activists have also expressed growing concern over the nature of the post-storm recovery and rebuilding. Naomi Klein, the prolific and prominent leftist author of “The Shock Doctrine,” writing in The Intercept on Monday, pointed to New Orleans’s fate in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as a warning.
“We live in a world in which the governing powers have shown themselves all too willing to exploit the diversion of a large-scale crisis, and the very fact that so many are focused on life-and-death emergencies, to ram through their most regressive policies,” Klein wrote. “Republicans (after Katrina) wasted no time pushing for a fully privatized school system, weakening labor and tax laws, increasing oil and gas drilling and refining and flinging the door open to mercenary companies like Blackwater.”
Rep. Al Green, another Democrat with a large part of his constituency in Houston, is already pushing for a sustained public investment in the region.
“I think that we have to prepare ourselves for a circumstance similar to what we had with Katrina,” he said Monday in an interview on CNN. “There will be short-term recovery, short-term temporary housing, but we still have some long-term problems that have to be dealt with. Not only to residential properties but also to businesses.”
Looking ahead, 350.org’s Yakupitiyage, who cited Trump’s decision to block requirements on flood-proofing infrastructure as an early reason for skepticism, said her group and other climate activists will be tracking how – and to whom – federal resources are allocated.
“We’re really going to be pressuring elected officials to take a stand on Harvey,” she said, “and to really make the connection between climate change and Harvey, and what a just recovery effort looks like.”
Larry Cohen, the board chair for the political organization – Our Revolution – spun from Sen. Bernie Sanders 2016 presidential campaign, also expressed concern about the path forward and how Trump’s history as a climate change denier could play a role.
“While all of the world’s climate scientists believe that climate change is a major factor in the severity of recent storms, the President continues to ignore those facts,” Cohen said. “In rebuilding we ignore those facts at our peril, and the safety of future generations.”