Harvey Reminds Congress Resilient Infrastructure Matters: Advocates

By Shaun Courtney

Advocates for resilient infrastructure are calling on Congress and government leaders to require that federal recovery monies for Hurricane Harvey damage go to reconstruction projects that can withstand future extreme weather.

Experts in the intersection between climate change and infrastructure want congressional leaders to invest wisely to prevent tax dollars from rebuilding a house only to see it flooded with the next major storm and rebuilt once more.

“Congress has to take this issue seriously if they want to ensure that we constantly do not rebuild the same properties over and over again because we failed to factor in future flooding and resilience to that future flooding,” Natural Resources Defense Council Project Attorney Joel Scata, told Bloomberg BNA, Aug. 28.

Though congressional leaders will face pressure to act quickly with dedicated funding, resilient infrastructure proponents hope the government will do its homework before doling out monies.

“Harvey should really serve as a wake-up call. Major flood disasters have been increasing over recent years and that trend does not look like it’s about to abate,” Scata said.

Political Pressure

Once the flood waters recede, the pressure will be less about airlifting grandmothers from rooftops and more about getting money out to communities quickly, John Williams, chairman and CEO of Impact Infrastructure, told Bloomberg BNA.

“Our federal government is going to get tons and tons of requests for enormous amounts of money and there will be lots of pressure to provide that money rapidly with minimal vetting or consideration as to whether or not dollars are spent on the most appropriate tactics or strategies,” Williams said.

Federal and state leaders need to pause long enough to make sure money being spent will help prevent future damage, Williams said.

“The impression I get from the administration is that they are looking to expedite infrastructure projects as quickly as possible, and trying to do that does not bode well for making those same projects resilient,” Scata told Bloomberg BNA.

Legislating Resilience

President Barack Obama signed an executive order in 2015 calling for infrastructure projects using federal dollars to be resilient to climate change. President Donald Trump reccntly rescinded that order, much to the frustration of industry groups like NRDC.

In the absence of any regulatory requirements, Congress can impose restrictions on how recovery dollars are spent, said Scata. The Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013, which provided about $50 billion in recovery funds in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, set aside a portion of funds intended for disaster resilience and hazard mitigation. Congress should do that again, said Scata.

“If we were really serious about making sure that infrastructure lasts as long as intended, the American public is getting their dollar’s worth out of federally-funded projects, then it really has to be done in a manner that is resilient to the future of more extreme flooding,” Scata said.

Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.) wants the federal government to apply the same principle of safeguarding investments to federal assets. The Democrat will introduce the PREPARE Act this fall, calling on the federal government to implement government-wide resilience and risk management priorities.

“It’s a zero-cost bill that compels the federal government to prepare for the threats posed by extreme weather events. Preparedness reduces costs, safeguards our economy and, most importantly, saves lives,” Cartwright said in a statement to Bloomberg BNA.

Congressional Outlook

This fall Congress will have to tackle both a debt ceiling and the annual budget process in addition to several expiring authorizations. Now there will likely be a special appropriation to cover recovery from Hurricane Harvey.

“I would like to think that those dollars will be made available, but time will tell. I have no reason to believe that they won’t, but we are living in unpredictable times,” said Williams.

To contact the reporter on this story: Shaun Courtney in Washington at scourtney@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at pHendrie@bna.com

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