Just before devastating flooding engulfed the city of Houston and much of the Texas Gulf Coast, the Trump administration rolled back flood protections as part of its effort to reduce federal regulations. Barack Obama approved a measure in 2015 to ensure that federal, state, and local agencies consider climate change as a factor when constructing publicly funded infrastructure.
Trump signed the order two weeks ago, but it didn't get much attention at the time for multiple reasons. People don't typically give much notice to wonky federal regulations, and the announcement of the rule reversal was swallowed up by Trump's other announcement at the press conference on the day of the signing: that "many sides" were to blame for the violence at the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Trump defended the move by calling national infrastructure a "massive self-inflicted wound on our country," and that fewer regulations will streamline the permitting process required for new construction. However, critics claim that the new rule will lead to lesser quality structures that are more likely to be destroyed in the event of natural disaster.
“There’s obviously legitimate things to be done to speed up infrastructure, but saying that we’re not going to pay attention to flood risks is not the way to do it,” Eli Lehrer, president of the libertarian think tank R Street Institute, told The Huffington Post. “And while it’s possible more infrastructure will be built... it is also quite likely that a lot of what is built will be destroyed in relatively short order. So this does no good for anybody.”
Trump's new order doesn't seem to have caused or exacerbated the damage in Houston in any way — any taxpayer-funded construction would have been well underway under the Obama era rule by the time the hurricane hit. Nevertheless, the timing caused the administration to attract massive criticism as the two news stories overlap.
"The long term effect of Trump's budget cuts in order to give tax [sic] cuts to billionaires will be disastrous in the near future," one user commented on Twitter. "Making America Worse Than Ever," another chimed in.
It's worth pointing out that the federal government isn't alone in mandating less than adequate flood management. In fact, the flooding in Houston is arguably much more the fault of the Texas legislature than any federal regulations. Unlike many other states, the Texas state government doesn't require communities to enroll in FEMA flood insurance. Plus, according to CityLab, the state doesn't directly fund flood-control infrastructure, and the three agencies involved in flood policy don't actually have the authority to set or implement those policies.
More than 30 inches of rain have fallen in the Houston area since Harvey made landfall on Friday — some 30,000 people have evacuated their homes, and many are seeking shelter in churches and convention centers across the city. Millions more who are not in standing water are still trapped indoors since so many of the major streets and highways are flooded. The damage throughout the Gulf Coast region is a prime example of how federal regulations such as the one Trump just eliminated may save lives and money.