Week 109: Trump’s Flood Insurance Flub Could Cost Us Billions

Plus, the administration plans a debate on climate change as coal executives continue to party in Trump’s hotel.

February 22, 2019

Welcome to our weekly Trump v. Earth column, in which onEarth reviews the environment-related shenanigans of President Trump and his allies.

Photo illustration: Virginia Lee for onEarth

Drowning in Debt

It’s no secret that the National Flood Insurance Program has been in trouble for a while. The NFIP has been in uninterrupted debt to the U.S. Treasury Department since Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. By 2016, the program owed taxpayers a whopping $23 billion.

Several fixes are needed. First and foremost, the flood maps that dictate the premiums that homeowners pay are a mess and must be updated. As of 2017, 58 percent of the maps were inaccurate or out of date, according to a report by the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general. (For instance, Hurricane Sandy landed in areas where the maps hadn’t been revised in almost 30 years.) In addition, mappers often fail to consider the projected shifts in flood patterns due to climate change, which means even the updated maps likely underestimate flood risks for the near future. The program must also create incentives to move people out of the most flood-prone areas and into lower-risk homes.

Some plans to address these problems were in the works. In 2012, for example, Congress formed the Technical Mapping Advisory Council, or TMAC, to assess the maps and forecast likely changes to flood patterns. Mapping engineers, emergency response managers, and floodplain experts had been working diligently on a draft report until last fall.

Then TMAC ran into the man-made disaster called the Donald Trump presidency, which has introduced a level of incompetence and neglect into the executive branch not seen since the Johnson administration. (The Andrew Johnson administration, I mean.) The council members’ appointments began to lapse late last year, and the Trump administration failed to process the renewals. According to a report that came out this week, 16 of the 20 TMAC members aren’t allowed to work because they’re waiting for the White House and Department of Homeland Security to process their clearances. The council requires at least 11 members for a quorum, so it’s not even close to being able to resume its work.

Such administrative snafus can come with a hefty price tag. The last TMAC meeting occurred soon after Hurricane Florence and just before Hurricane Michael. While the council couldn’t have changed the program in time to ward off the 9,000 claims that resulted from those storms, the temporal proximity of the hurricanes, which struck last September and October, illustrates how much these delays in reforming the NFIP can ultimately cost taxpayers. Hurricanes don’t wait for security clearances.

President Trump recently nominated Jeffrey Byard to head the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which oversees the NFIP. But I wouldn’t count on the change in leadership to solve the flood program’s problems. Trump’s track record in appointing agency heads is pretty dismal, and the last FEMA administrator, Brock Long, resigned amid accusations of misuse of government funds and ineptitude in dealing with Hurricane Maria and its effects on Puerto Rico in 2017.

The incoming FEMA administrator will have quite the mess to clean up. Last year, Congress recognized that the NFIP could never repay its full debt to the Treasury and forgave $16 billion. Almost immediately after that write-off, the program borrowed $6 billion more to cover losses from Hurricane Harvey.

Trump’s Fossil Fuels Flophouse

The “sole mission” of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity is to “advocate at the federal and state levels on behalf of coal-fueled electricity and the coal fleet.” Put only slightly differently, the ACCCE’s mission is to curry favor with the federal government to help promote coal.

Now, if that group were to select the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., to host one of its receptions, do you think it might have anything to do with the fact that President Trump still has a financial stake in that hotel? The ACCCE expects you to believe that it’s purely coincidental.

“We are not trying to curry favor with President Trump,” the leader of the organization claims. “We had a reception there the night before our board meeting because it was a nice location and convenient.”

If you believe that, I have a clean coal plant I’d like to sell you.

E&E reported this week on the staggering sums that the energy industry has spent at the Trump International Hotel since Trump took office. It’s one of the ickiest stories I’ve read in a long time. Coal baron Bob Murray (yes, that Bob Murray) has been a VIP at the hotel, paying what hotel staffers refer to as a “high rate” for his Trump-owned room. The super political action committee America First Action, which has collected millions from the energy industry, has spent nearly $400,000 on rooms and food at the Trump International Hotel. And so many meetings with Trump officials have been held at the hotel that a U.S. Energy Department staffer called it “Republican Disneyland.”

Please stop the ride. I want to get off.

The New M.C. of Denial

Remember when disgraced former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt hatched a harebrained scheme to debate the merits of climate change science on television? That idea is rising from the dead—this time from within the White House. The Washington Post reports that the administration is reviving plans for a formal analysis of whether climate change science is really real, or just kind of real.

The protagonist is William Happer, a National Security Council senior director. Unlike Pruitt, Happer is an actual scientist with a distinguished reputation. He built his career, however, on atomic physics breakthroughs that improved the imaging systems used in defense and astronomy—not on climate science. And Happer’s belief that increasing the carbon concentration in the atmosphere will be a boon to humankind falls well outside the mainstream of climatology.

Maybe Happer has earned the right to have a zany belief or two after decades of achievement. But that doesn’t mean he’s entitled to convene a vanity scientific panel to debate his fringe idea. The dangerous impacts of climate change on national security have already been researched to exhaustion by hundreds of scientists with more relevant expertise.

Yet the discussion paper that proposes Happer’s climate change panel claims that the consensus that climate change threatens national security has not “undergone a rigorous independent and adversarial scientific peer review.”

This is the language of litigation, not science. Trials are adversarial—two lawyers are pitted against each other, each makes an argument, one wins, and the other loses. But peer review is not an adversarial process. Scientific journals do not hire combatants and charge them with attacking opposition research. Rather, they hire experts and ask them to assess the merits and the limitations of a study.

Why is the administration obsessed with turning climate science into an adversarial process? Perhaps because it thinks of climate change not as a scientific issue but as an attack by a cabal of scientists on the financial interests of the fossil fuel industry. In this view, one side will win, and the other will lose. Just like in a trial. But science isn’t like that. It’s a process of collaborative discovery. And if we don’t keep it that way, we all lose.

Stay up-to-date on Trump’s environmental antics by visiting NRDC’s Trump Watch or following it on Facebook or Twitter.

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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