Weeks before Harvey, Trump signed an order making future infrastructure less flood-proof

Interstate 610, a federally-funded highway, flooded by Harvey.
Interstate 610, a federally-funded highway, flooded by Harvey.
Image: AP Photo/David J. Phillip
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Less than two weeks before Hurricane Harvey brought a flood emergency to the Texas Gulf coast, US president Donald Trump signed an executive order allowing federal agencies to get permits to build without sea-level rise in mind.

The order, signed August 15, rescinded an Obama-era order that required government agencies to take into account the “best-available and actionable science” on sea-level rise when building federal infrastructure. New federal highways and military bases, for example, would need to be elevated two feet above the area’s high-water mark for an extreme flood, and critical infrastructure like hospitals and emergency response buildings would need to be three feet higher than the mark.

The White House said nixing the order would “streamline the current process” for infrastructure permits. But experts said it would likely result in more federal spending on disaster relief and infrastructure repairs in the future.

As Hurricane Harvey continues to pummel South Texas, plenty of federal infrastructure is flooding. More than 250 state highways are closed, and two Navy bases in direct line of the storm were evacuated.

Sea level rise due to climate change is already a fact of life in South Texas; global warming is raising sea levels along Texas’ coast by almost two inches per decade, according to scientists at the US Environmental Protection Agency. Rainfall is also “becoming more intense, and floods are becoming more severe…. In the coming decades, storms are likely to become more severe,” according to the EPA

Sea-level rise makes storm surges “that much higher,” John Nielsen-Gammon, Texas’ state climatologist, told Quartz.

Texas has over 810 federally owned or leased buildings, a major coastal military installation, and plenty of federal agency outposts. Like most states, much of its basic infrastructure is partly federally-funded; Texas communities are currently lobbying the Trump administration to include a Texas highway project in its federal infrastructure plans, according to Marketplace. Federally-funded infrastructure, like that highway, would have been included in Obama’s order on sea-level rise preparedness.

A major federally-funded study prepared for the Texas General Land Office and published last year laid out how vulnerable much of the state’s coastal infrastructure, like roads, bridges, and water treatment facilities, are to flooding and storm surge; its long coastal area spans 22 counties. As it begins to grapple with more frequent and severe flooding, Texas may feel the affect of Trump’s executive order more than most states.