The Energy 202: We asked Texas Republicans about Harvey and climate change. Only one answered. – Washington Post
A Texas flag flies over floodwaters caused by Hurricane Harvey in La Grange, Texas. (Ralph Barrera/Austin American-Statesman via AP)
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When members of Congress from Texas return to work next week, the fallout from Harvey, likely the worst disaster to ever hit the state, will follow them back to Washington.
Unless it is reauthorized by the end of September, the National Flood Insurance Program, which is nearly $25 billion in debt, will lose most of its borrowing power at a time when it will begin making payouts on claims on the Texas Gulf Coast. And President Trump has promised to work with Congress on a federal aid package for affected communities in Texas.
From Bloomberg’s Jennifer Epstein:
Harvey aid “going to be a costly proposition,” Trump says, mentioning Cruz & Cornyn. “I think we’ll come through with the right solution.”
— Jennifer Epstein (@jeneps) August 29, 2017
But that aid request puts many Texas Republicans in Congress in a bind four years in the making. In 2013, all but one Texas Republican who was serving in Congress then and is still in office now voted against an aid package for New York and New Jersey following Hurricane Sandy.
“The congressional members in Texas are hypocrites,” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), a Trump ally, said this week. “I said back in 2012, they’d be proven to be hypocrites. It was just a matter of time.” See a clip below:
Christie took direct aim at Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who voted against Sandy help four years ago, today on “Morning Joe:”
Chris Christie on “Morning Joe” raked Ted Cruz for saying 2/3 of Hurricane Sandy relief bill was pork. “He made it up” and “he knows it.” pic.twitter.com/py9l2z8KAT
— Jennifer Jacobs (@JenniferJJacobs) August 30, 2017
The Energy 202 reached out all 38 members of Texas delegation to ask about that and other issues related to Harvey (follow The Post’s comprehensive coverage here) as they prepare to return to Washington.
Only one Republican, Rep. Lamar Smith, responded to defend his 2013 vote.
“It is my hope that our funding package for aiding those affected by Harvey doesn’t include funding unrelated to damage caused by the storm,” said Smith, who is the chairman of the House Science Committee and a frequent critic of federal climate scientists. “The Sandy bill was used as an opportunity for fiscally irresponsible politicians to exploit natural disaster spending in order to fund pet projects with taxpayer money.”
In 2013, many Republicans derided the Sandy aid bill as being laden with spending provisions unrelated to the hurricane, such as fixes to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
On MSNBC this week, Cruz claimed that “two-thirds of that bill had nothing to do with Sandy.” (Cruz’s office did not reply to The Post’s request for comment.)
Texas’s other senator and the No. 2 Senate Republican, John Cornyn, also defended his Sandy vote, noting that he did approve a smaller, $9.7 billion increase in the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s borrowing power before rejecting the larger $50.5 billion aid package. (Cornyn’s office also didn’t reply.)
WATCH: Sen. John Cornyn defends vote against Sandy relief https://t.co/LzmKtSSzh8
— NBC News (@NBCNews) August 29, 2017
Cornyn tells reporters he’s talked w/ WH about Congress first making a “down payment” on Harvey aid and they seem “sympathetic” to the plan.
— Patrick Svitek (@PatrickSvitek) August 29, 2017
Texas Democrats, however, criticized their Republican colleagues for voting against the Sandy package and said they agreed with scientists who say climate change increases the severity of disasters like Harvey.
“Natural disasters know no party, and it was regrettable that Texas Republicans played politics with the Hurricane Sandy aid package in their time of need,” Rep. Marc Veasey (D-Tex.) said.
Calling from a school in his Houston-area district that has been converted into a shelter, Rep. Al Green (D-Tex.) added that Congress should pass an aid package not only to help the people of Texas, but “because we want every American to know that your government is going to be there for you in a time of crisis.”
The lone Republican “yes” vote from the Lone Star State for that Sandy bill came from Rep. John Abney Culberson, whose district encompasses parts of Houston and its suburbs.
On the question of climate change, Republicans from Texas were also mute.
Meanwhile, the six Texas Democrats who responded to The Post’s request for comment — Reps. Joaquin Castro, Henry Cuellar, Lloyd Doggett and Eddie Bernice Johnson along with Green and Veasey — agreed with scientists who say climate change increases the severity of disasters like Harvey.
“The flooding in Houston caused by Harvey marks the third ‘500-year’ flood to hit the city in the past three years,” said Johnson, who serves with Smith on the House Science Committee as its top Democrat. “It is hard to believe these catastrophic events can be occurring so frequently by chance.”
However, Smith pointed to an interview that Bill Read, the former director of the National Hurricane Center, gave on CNN, in which Read declined to attribute the Harvey’s intensity to climate change.
“This is not an uncommon occurrence to see storms grow and intensify rapidly in the western Gulf of Mexico,” Read said. “That’s as long as we’ve been tracking them, that has occurred.”
Indeed, climate scientists say singling out this one hurricane as a global-warming-driven anomaly would be a mistake. But they also argue that climate change can worsen the hurricanes that do occur.
“The storm is a bit more intense, bigger and longer lasting than it otherwise would be,” Kevin Trenberth, a climate researcher with the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., told The Post over the weekend.
As for the National Flood Insurance Program, The Post’s Mike DeBonis offers this breakdown:
Even before stormwaters swept across metropolitan Houston, debate on how to restructure the NFIP exposed fissures in Congress that crossed traditional partisan lines, pitting conservatives who want to scale back the government costs for the program against lawmakers from flood-prone regions wary of jacking up their constituents’ premiums.
“Leaving millions of homeowners without flood insurance is not an option,” Castro, a Texas Democrat, said. “Congress must either modify the program in a way that keeps rates affordable or simply pass an extension of the current program.”
Meanwhile, Harvey made landfall for a second time early Wednesday as a tropical storm in Louisiana. The storm hit west of Cameron, La., around 4 a.m. local time, according to the National Hurricane Center. The center predicted another 3 to 6 inches of rain would fall from southwestern Louisiana and between the area near the border with Texas and into western Kentucky, with “isolated amounts up to 10 inches.” The center warned of “catastrophic and life-threatening flooding” that would continue in and around Houston and into southwest Louisiana for the remainder of the week.
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— “What a crowd, what a turnout:” President Trump arrived at a Corpus Christi, Tex., fire station on Tuesday to offer words of support to the victims of flood-ravaged areas. He praised local officials and marveled at the extent of the storm.“This is historic, it’s epic what happened, but you know what, it happened in Texas and Texas can handle anything,” he told an applauding crowd.
His visit was in some ways like one of his rallies. The Post’s Jenna Johnson describes a scene that included hundreds of supporters chanting “USA!” as the president turned the focus on himself.
“Thank you, everybody,” the president said, sporting one of the white “USA” caps that are being sold on his campaign website for $40. “I just want to say: We love you. You are special… What a crowd, what a turnout.”
Yet again, Trump managed to turn attention on himself. His responses to the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey have been more focused on the power of the storm and his administration’s response than on the millions of Texans whose lives have been dramatically altered by the floodwaters.
From Center for Public Integrity investigative reporter Christina Wilkie:
“What a crowd, what a turnout,” Trump said from atop this firetruck, addressing hurricane victims. pic.twitter.com/0EdsLctHDi
— Christina Wilkie (@christinawilkie) August 29, 2017
From Quartz’s Heather Timmons:
— Heather Timmons (@HeathaT) August 29, 2017
Other reporters and people on social media pointed to Trump’s focus on the crowd as he visited Harvey victims. Some compared Trump to past presidents.
From HuffPost’s Igor Bobic:
trying to imagine Bush tapping that bullhorn, clearing his throat, and saying “wow, what a crowd, what turnout”
— Igor Bobic (@igorbobic) August 29, 2017
From Raw Story’s Sarah Burris:
What a contrast. This is Obama after Sandy.
This is Trump after Harvey “rally”: “What a crowd, what a turnout” pic.twitter.com/W7BE42Cgl5
— Sarah Burris (@SarahBurris) August 29, 2017
From The Post’s Dave Weigel:
“What a crowd, what a turnout!” pic.twitter.com/I3X5RHqECY
— Dave Weigel (@daveweigel) August 29, 2017
— Getting up from his seat: As part of a move to eliminate or downsize several special envoy positions at the State Department, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson plans to scrap the positions of the special envoy for climate change and a special representative for the Arctic region, CNN reported.
Tillerson notified the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in a letter sent to its chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.). The staff under both positions will be shifted to the Bureau of Oceans and International and Scientific Affairs, according to the report.
In a copy of the letter published by Politico, Tillerson wrote the changes “would also eliminate redundancies that dilute the ability of a bureau to deliver on its primary functions. Empowering regional and functional bureaus will make knowledge and resources more accessible, provide clarity in reporting authority, strengthen communication channels, and create a more efficient State Department.”
Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), one of the most outspoken senators on climate change, urged Tillerson to reconsider. “Secretary Tillerson must retain this position so that the United States keeps a seat at the table,” Markey said in a statement.
Flashback: During his confirmation hearing in January, the former ExxonMobil chief executive assured senators that he believed the United States must retain a “seat at the table” at climate negotiations, using that phrase at least four times.
— A top official from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has stepped down from her role to lead the EPA’s Midwest regional office.
Cathy Stepp, a Wisconsin-native and a former Republican state senator, will be the deputy administrator for Region 7, the Wisconsin State Journal reported. The EPA’s Region 7 includes Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska and Missouri.
“The White House presented me with an opportunity I couldn’t ignore,” Stepp said Tuesday in an email to the agency.
Stepp sparked controversy last year when she ordered her department to remove information on the website that indicated human activity was responsible for climate change. So it sounds like Stepp will fit in at the federal agency.
— Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) introduced an amendment last week to the House Rules Committee to prohibit funds from being used for the National Climate Assessment, Axios reported.
“I do not think that humans have a significant impact on climate. The federal government should stop regulating and stomping on our economy and freedoms in the name of a discredited theory,” Biggs said, according to the report.
Signs south of the San Jacinto River Waste Pits U.S. EPA Superfund Site warns people not to consume fish from the area Friday, Aug. 26, 2016 in Channelview, Tex. (Michael Ciaglo / Houston Chronicle via AP)
— Here are two scary numbers from a report by The Post’s Darryl Fears and Brady Dennis on Superfund sites in and around Houston:
Right now, EPA officials as well as local scientists are on the ground taking water samples.
The Exxon Mobil Beaumont Polyethylene Plant is seen during tropical storm Harvey in Beaumont, Texas. (REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman)
— Harvey hazards: ExxonMobil disclosed in a regulatory filing with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality that Harvey damaged two of its refineries, which led to the release of hazardous pollutants, reports The Post’s Steven Mufson:
- At the company’s Baytown oil refining complex, the second-biggest refinery in the United States, a floating roof covering an oil tank sank during the storm, causing “unusually high emissions,” Mufson writes. The tank at the Baytown refinery will need to be repaired when the weather becomes safe enough to do so.
- A sulfur thermal oxidizer, which captures and burns sulfur dioxide, was damaged at the Beaumont refinery. The damage resulted in the plant releasing more than 1,300 pounds of sulfur dioxide. According to the company’s filing, the “unit was stabilized” and “no impact to the community has been reported.”
- The shutdown of ExxonMobil’s plants during Harvey also led to various chemical emissions.
Mufson added: “Most of the other facilities belonging to major companies also filed notices with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Chevron Phillips, for example, said that it expected its Cedar Bayou chemical plant to exceed permitted limits for several hazardous pollutants, such as 1,3-butadiene, benzene and ethylene, during shutdown procedures.”
— There’s more: A chemical plant in Crosby, Tex., was in critical condition on Tuesday night and evacuated all personnel.
Arkema, which produces organic peroxides used in plastics and rubber industries, was at risk of an explosion after its refrigeration system and inundated backup power generators failed, Mufson reported. The materials need to be kept at low temperatures to prevent combustion.
“The situation at the Crosby site has become serious,” the company said on its Web page. “At this time, while we do not believe there is any imminent danger, the potential for a chemical reaction leading to a fire and/or explosion within the site confines is real.”
— So far during his presidency, Trump has benefited politically from low gasoline prices. Now after Harvey and the shutdown of some Gulf Coast refineries, gasoline has hit a two-year high.
— So many colors: Harvey has now set a rainfall record for a tropical system, with 51.9 inches of rain as of late Tuesday afternoon. The National Weather Service said the previous record for rainfall was set in Medina, Tex., in 1978, at 48 inches by Tropical Storm Amelia. It is also the most rainfall from a tropical system in the Lower 48, The Capital Weather Gang’s Jason Samenow reported. (Hawaii happens to get a lot of rain.)
NWS tweeted that so much rain had fallen in Texas that it added additional colors to a precipitation graphic to explain it.
NWS added three more colors to the key to depict areas with greater than 15 inches of rain:
— NWS (@NWS) August 28, 2017
The New York Times has a graphic breaking down how long it would take any other city in the United States to get as much rain as has fallen in parts of Houston this week. It took 15 months for 50 inches of rain to drop in D.C., for example.
Below are some of the images shared on social media from flooding around Texas as this week’s storm continued:
From a reporter at local station KHOU:
— Tiffany KHOU 🙋🏻 (@TiffanyKHOU) August 29, 2017
From the New York Times’s Julie Turkewitz:
The scene in E. Houston at the moment. This is Jose Machado, who walked through a flooded hwy, with water chest-high, in search of his dog. pic.twitter.com/d9jxtgzi4K
— julieturkewitz (@julieturkewitz) August 29, 2017
BuzzFeed’s Jon Passantino shared photos of donations made to a local church:
— Jon Passantino (@passantino) August 29, 2017
And an image from a highway in Beaumont:
I-10 West of Beaumont right now pic.twitter.com/vHPSRpRr9K
— Christopher Boehme (@cboehme69) August 29, 2017
Houston Chronicle’s Lydia DePillis shared an image of blue skies in Houston on Tuesday afternoon:
— Lydia DePillis (@lydiadepillis) August 29, 2017
–A 500-year-flood: The storm marks the third time in as many years that the Houston area has experienced “500-year” rainfall and flood conditions, reports The Post’s Christopher Ingraham.
A 500-year flood is a term used to describe an event that has a 1 in 500 chance of happening in a given year. How is it possible that Houston has had so many of these events recently? Ingraham breaks it down:
Think of it as more a statistical term than a meteorological one. The probability that any extreme storm will happen is completely independent of the probability of the next one. “If one of those events occurs, it has no effect on future events occurring,” according to the National Weather Service. “In other words, if a 100-year flood event occurs, that does NOT mean that people are ‘safe’ for 99 years. The risk of having the flood in any given year is the same,” regardless of whether it occurred recently. Ditto for 500-year floods.
Practically speaking, that means you can have multiple 500-year flood events happen essentially back-to-back. Indeed, that appears to be happening in Houston right now, with the flooding in 2015, 2016 and today.
Here’s the other big caveat: The term is applied to a local area, not to the United States as a whole. So when meteorologists say the Houston is experiencing a 500-year flood, they mean there is a 1 in 500 chance of it happening in any given year in Houston.
— Worth a read: About two decades ago, a report from the National Wildlife Federation warned of catastrophe at the hands of the government’s flood insurance program. In a long-read published for Politico Magazine on Tuesday, Michael Grunwald reflects on the 1998 report, which in part highlights those very concerns in Houston, which then had the second most “repetitive loss properties,” or properties with at least two claims of more than $1,000 in a ten-year period. “Houston, we have a problem,” report author David Conrad said when announcing the report’s findings. “We haven’t seen the worst of this yet.”
Houston’s problem was runaway development in flood-prone areas, accelerated by heavily subsidized federal flood insurance. Now that Hurricane Harvey has turned Conrad’s warnings into reality, it’s worth noting that Houston’s problem was in part a Washington problem, a slow-motion disaster that was easy to predict but politically impossible to prevent. Congress often discusses fixing flood insurance to stop encouraging Americans to build in harm’s way, but the National Flood Insurance Program is still almost as dysfunctional as it was 19 years ago. It is now nearly $25 billion in the red, piling debt onto the national credit card. Meanwhile, cities like Houston—as well as New Orleans, which Higher Ground identified as the national leader in repetitive losses eight years before Hurricane Katrina—continue to sprawl into their vulnerable floodplains, aided by the availability of inexpensive federally supported insurance.
Here are some more stories:
(Photo by Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)
- Environmental Protection Agency holds a meeting of the Chartered Science Advisory Board.
- The EPA’s Chartered Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee and the CASAC Secondary NAAQS Review Panel for Oxides of Nitrogen and Sulfur hold a public teleconference on Thursday.
- The House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response and Communications holds a hearing on the future of FEMA on September 6.
President Trump tells a cheering crowd: “Texas can handle anything”:
President Trump says “We are very proud of the Coast Guard”:
Trump praises teamwork after ‘epic proportion’ of Harvey damage:
Watch how presidents react to natural disasters:
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