Trump wants to slash budgets of federal agencies at the forefront of disaster relief

Budget cuts in the works as climate change intensifies storms.

President Donald Trump has proposed major cuts in the budgets of agencies responding to Hurricane Harvey. CREDIT: AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
President Donald Trump has proposed major cuts in the budgets of agencies responding to Hurricane Harvey. CREDIT: AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

Numerous federal agencies targeted for major budget cuts or even elimination by the Trump administration are playing important roles in helping people recover from Hurricane Harvey along the Gulf Coast. Many agencies in the budget crosshairs also are closely monitoring the path and intensity of Hurricane Irma and making preparations if the storm strikes the United States.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, Environmental Protection Agency, and other agencies have been responding to Harvey and could be sending staff to Florida later this week if Irma strikes the state. These same employees, as they provide vital services to storm-damaged areas, understand their jobs are in jeopardy based on President Donald Trump’s budget priorities.

Over the past week, the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, targeted for elimination by the Trump administration, has been looking into a fire and explosions at a chemical facility, owned by French company Arkema Inc., northeast of Houston.

The White House wants to provide the board with $9 billion in fiscal year 2018, but only for the purpose of shutting down the agency, E&E News reported Friday. “If our budget were cut it could adversely affect our ability to complete the investigation, or complete it in a more timely matter,” Vanessa Sutherland, the chairperson of the board, told The Nation last week.

The Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board looks into major chemical accidents to search for their causes and makes recommendations that could prevent a recurrence. The board’s recommendations are often adopted by industry and government agencies. For example, the board, with a budget of $11 million and 40 staff, investigated the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and has performed more than 130 investigations since it began operations in 1998.

The Environmental Protection Agency is responding to Harvey’s impact on industrial facilities and toxic dumps, including Superfund sites. The agency has 143 personnel working on response efforts to Harvey. Trump’s 2018 budget plan for the EPA, however, calls for cutting the Superfund cleanup program by approximately 25 percent. Overall, the president’s FY18 budget request would cut the EPA’s budget by 31 percent and eliminate 3,200 staff and over 50 programs.

“The damaging cuts proposed make clear that the administration is willing to put Americans at risk by shortchanging investments in disaster preparedness,” Rachel Cleetus, lead economist and climate policy manager at the Union of Concerned Scientists, wrote in a blog post. “Ultimately, this approach could also cost taxpayers more in the aftermath of a disaster.”

Of course, Trump isn’t going to get all the budget cuts he is seeking, even though Republicans control both the Senate and the House. A House budget bill, if passed by Congress, would slash the EPA’s budget by $528 million, or 6.5 percent, for 2018, a major cut but smaller than the $2.6 billion cut Trump is seeking.

Budget experts expect Congress will pass a continuing resolution by the end of September to keep the government running, thereby delaying final decisions on Trump’s budget cuts until December. In the meantime, Congress is likely to approve a Harvey recovery bill, as it has after past disasters, to cover the cost of storm damages. The cuts proposed by the Trump administration, if approved by Congress, would generally affect funding to prepare for future storms and disasters.

Among more traditional disaster-relief agencies, the White House is seeking budget cuts of about 9 percent for disaster-relief programs across the Department of Homeland Security, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Trump wants to reduce FEMA’s state and local program grants by $600 million.

The proposed budget also would make steep cuts to FEMA’s Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grant Program, which helps communities become better prepared before disaster strikes instead of focusing only on post-disaster recovery efforts. Furthermore, about $190 million would be cut from FEMA’s Flood Hazard Mapping and Risk Analysis Program.

The president’s budget also proposes to end funding for the Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant program, an initiative that helps low-income communities recovery from disasters. Earlier this year, North Carolina was denied block grant funding from this program to help it recover from the damage caused by Hurricane Matthew in 2016.

The Trump administration wants to slash the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) budget by 16 percent. Several NOAA programs are developing advanced modeling to make storm forecasts more accurate and reliable. But the administration requested a $5 million funding cut for these modeling programs. The agency’s climate research arm — the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research — would face a 32 percent budget cut, the largest of any NOAA agency.

“At a time when storms are getting more destructive, floods more devastating and people and property more vulnerable, accurate weather forecasting is more critical than ever — which is why the Trump administration’s brazen proposal to slash funding for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s most important forecasting and storm prediction programs has set off alarms,” Scott Weaver, a senior climate scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, wrote in response to the administration’s proposed NOAA budget cuts.

NOAA’s National Weather Service, which is facing an $82 million budget cut, provided indispensable forecasts for the people of southeastern Texas. The NWS also developed maps to illustrate how high the bayous rose in and around Houston after Harvey and projected when they would get back to normal.

The White House wants to cut $114 million in disaster assistance from the Department of Agriculture Department’s budget that goes to farmers to help them recover livestock, crops, and equipment. Farmers along the Gulf Coast have faced major damage to their operations from Harvey, the Washington Post reported.

Hurricane Irma has strengthened to a Category 5 storm and catastrophic damage is possible in Florida this weekend, according to NOAA’s National Hurricane Center. “This hurricane has the potential to be a major event for the East Coast. It also has the potential to significantly strain FEMA and other governmental resources occurring so quickly on the heels of Harvey,” Evan Myers, chief operating officer of AccuWeather, said in a statement Monday afternoon.

Recent progress in forecasting the intensity of hurricanes — the results of which are used by private weather forecasting companies like AccuWeather — could be undermined by proposed cuts in NOAA’s funding for tropical weather research, experts say.