While President Donald Trump on Tuesday toured the post-hurricane devastation in Puerto Rico, former FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate warned that disasters are going to exceed U.S. response capabilities, especially if the country does not improve its infrastructure.
Trump has repeatedly downplayed the disaster in Puerto Rico, even during his comments there Tuesday, while congratulating his response teams for what officials and media on the ground say have been a botched emergency relief effort. Time will tell what went wrong in the early days of the Puerto Rico response, but unless the United States invests more in infrastructure and adaptation, it’s likely the country will see more disasters that overwhelm response capabilities, Fugate said.
“Disasters are getting so big,” Fugate said. “We have disasters and disaster risk profiles — we, as the United States face — that you’re not going to be able to respond to as people would expect.”
Fugate, who served as administrator for nearly eight years under former President Barack Obama, reserved the bulk of his comments for the country’s long-term planning and approach, or lack thereof, to building resilient infrastructure. Better planning, he said, is the difference between a bad storm and a disaster.
“Houston didn’t happen overnight,” he said, referencing the first of three major hurricanes that hit the United States in September, including Fugate’s home state of Florida, where he served under former Gov. Jeb Bush (R) prior to joining the Obama administration.
“Our policies are always based in the past. One of our standards for determining what you should build to is the 100-year risk, or the last hundred years of data… The problem is that if you’re only looking backwards, yet you’ve had three hurricanes that each individually exceeded any known past record of impacts, and you build back to the last 100 years, you build to failure,” Fugate told a policy crowd at an event at the Center for American Progress. (ThinkProgress is an editorially independent project of CAP.)
“You’re talking billions of rebuilding, and the current plan will be: Rebuild it back the way it was. Rebuild it back to the past. Rebuild it back to fail again,” Fugate said. “Let’s be blunt: This is your taxpayer dollars at work. I don’t know why anyone talks about FEMA money, it ain’t FEMA’s money.”
But whether Congress will accept that taxpayer money should be spent on infrastructure that can last past the next big storm remains to be seen.
Just 10 days before Hurricane Harvey struck Houston, the Trump administration rescinded an Obama-era that directed the federal government to take flood risks into account when building infrastructure, although Fugate said he thinks there is some support within the current administration for making smart decisions in the wake of hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria.
In the meantime, though, Fugate said the country is not adequately pricing risk. Through the National Flood Insurance Program, the federal government — or, taxpayers — are subsidizing housing built on known flood plains. Moreover, lobbying from the real estate industry, Fugate said, has stopped initiatives to at least limit new construction in high-risk areas. “Is it in your interest as a taxpayer to continue to pay to support that program?” Fugate asked.
Fugate also touched on climate change during his talk, joking that he “doesn’t believe” in it. “Belief systems are based on things you can neither prove nor disprove,” he said. “Climate change] is fact-based. The data is there… The peer-reviewed data has shown that we are starting to see amplifications and disruptions in climate.”
Fugate also urged reporters not to confuse Trump’s public response and the emergency response on the ground in Puerto Rico.
“There is, I think, a separation between rhetoric and action,” Fugate told reporters after the event, after being questioned about Trump’s tweets in recent days. “The tendency to think that rhetoric is determining what is happening and what those actions are, I would caution people not to draw that conclusion.”
Trump has falsely claimed that “all” Puerto Rico’s buildings have been inspected. He has also been criticized for “going dark” for four days after Maria’s landfall, when the full extent of the damage was becoming known. After the emergency response is over, a full accounting of what happened will take place, Fugate said. After that, it will be about rebuilding a more resilient island.