Julian Zelizer: Hurricanes Harvey and Irma highlight how much victims depend on the government before, during and after a natural disaster
Supporting regulations that combat climate change is one of the biggest ways that the Trump administration can help citizens in hurricane zones, Zelizer writes
Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer is a history and public affairs professor at Princeton University and the author of “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society.” He’s also the co-host of the “Politics & Polls” podcast. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
As Hurricane Irma moves ominously closer to Florida’s shores and Texas continues digging out from the wreckage of Hurricane Harvey, Americans are reminded how much government matters. Devastating natural crises such as these, like others in our history, instantly remind us why President Ronald Reagan’s famous maxim – “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem” – was so wrong.
When natural disasters strike, we depend on all levels of government to save us. Since Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, as the historian Gareth Davies has shown, the federal government has taken a much larger role in dealing with natural disasters.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency, created in 1978 under President Jimmy Carter, remains on the front lines of helping guide citizens through the horror of these weather emergencies. FEMA coordinates the transmission of information about the storm and then turns to the search-and-rescue mission. State and local government officials make sure that residents are moved around and evacuated as safely as possible, while first responders will be there in the hours after a hurricane hits to help people find the medical assistance they need and to find safe shelter. The National Guard is often called in to ensure order. Federal insurance offers affected citizens a lifeline to rebuild their homes and their lives once the storm is gone.
The government is also needed before these kinds of weather emergencies begin. Sound preparation, at the state and local level, can improve the odds that most citizens will be able to find adequate shelters when there is no electricity, limited food and gas shortages.
The state and local government can impose strict zoning rules, particularly in coastal states, to minimize the kind of damage that these storms can cause. In 2015, for instance, President Barack Obama had issued the Federal Flood Risk Mitigation Standard, which required that projects funded by federal dollars had to implement stricter measures to prevent water damage.
After Hurricane Katrina, Congress passed legislation requiring that local communities put into place a sounder disaster plan and devote more money to training local officials about how to handle these situations. The training process for local and federal officials dealing with disasters was standardized.
Sound infrastructure projects, with the guiding eye of the Civil Engineer Corps – members of the Navy who are in charge of engineering, management, planning, construction and maintenance – are vital to making sure that roads and levees are in place to keep dangerous waters away from people and homes.
There was a system in place that focused on helping, but it seems that the current administration is intent on doing the opposite.
President Donald Trump overturned – with the blessing of the real estate industry – President Obama’s mitigation standard. “This overregulated permitting process is a massive, self-inflicted wound on our country – it’s disgraceful– denying our people much needed investments in their community,” Trump said after meeting with top advisers on infrastructure.
Tough government regulations remain the only way that we can combat the climate change that scientists have proven make these weather patterns more severe in recent years. Environmental activists have been warning of the costs of President Trump pulling out of the Paris Climate Accord and the EPA canceling the requirement for oil and gas companies to report methane emissions.
Congress revoked an updated planning rule governing public lands. Congress has failed to reach an agreement, for years, on comprehensive legislation to allow the federal government to seriously curtail carbon emissions through measures such as cap-and-trade. Ironically, the two states that are most affected by these recent storms are led by governors who have been adamant deniers of climate change.
This doesn’t mean that, as Reagan put it, the government is the problem. If anything, the effects of Congress and the President failing to achieve better legislation proves how important the role of the government is to the lives of Hurricane victims.
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While the nation waits and prays that the Sunshine State somehow survives the worst of the predictions, let’s remember that there is one place where all Floridians should still be able to turn during and after this happens –and that’s the government, even with the dismantling that President Trump and House Republicans have already accomplished.
It should now be clear that the kind of draconian cuts that President Trump and the Republican Congress have been pursuing in federal spending, including cuts to FEMA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (which helps rebuild communities) must be abandoned. He also planned to cut federal insurance coverage for homes that were prone to floods.
The weather emergency also exposes the danger of the deregulatory zeal that has shaped the first months of his presidency. In the next few months, it turns out that more Americans are looking to Washington to literally drain the swamp in a way that no other institution or person can.
This is true in natural disasters, just as it is with other challenges Americans face – from chronic poverty to the vicissitudes of old age. Maybe President Trump – who has a keen interest in what happens in Florida, in part because of his properties there, including Mar-a-Lago – will start to change his tune a bit once the sunshine returns.