A small shred of good news for protecting Puerto Ricans from future climate impacts appears to have snuck into the 2018 budget deal that Congress passed last week.
The two-year budget, signed by Trump last Friday, includes nearly $100 billion in funding for disaster recovery. Of this, $28 billion is given to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for disaster relief, long-term recovery, and mitigation efforts for those impacted by major disasters in 2017, such as Hurricanes Harvey, Maria and Irma.
Tucked into all of this is a requirement that Puerto Rico must submit a report to Congress analyzing its economic and disaster recovery plan for the next two years. It must consider “actions as necessary to mitigate vulnerabilities to future extreme weather events and natural disasters and increase community resilience.”
“It is a little bit of good news,” Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for climate change law at Columbia University, told ThinkProgress. “I don’t know where the language came from or how closely the administration looked at it amidst the massive chaos that surrounded the budget.”
“What we have here doesn’t mention climate change per se but it does talk about vulnerability to weather events. So it’s a step in the right direction,” Gerrard added. “I don’t want to call it more than that.”
Under the budget, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands will receive $4.8 billion to replenish Medicaid funds, $2 billion to restore the power grid, and $9 billion for housing and urban development projects. However, local officials have criticized this for still being tens of billions of dollars short of what’s needed for a full recovery. Officials have also previously called the White House’s response a “disaster”, stating that very few citizens were receiving assistance from the federal government in a timely manner.
“From everything I’ve heard the money that is allocated for disaster recovery is still far short of what is needed to adequately rebuild Puerto Rico,” Gerrard said. “Hopefully this will make it easier to take long-term risks into account in the reconstruction process.”
According to the budget deal, the report would be produced in coordination with the Federal Emergency Management Agency with help from the Secretary of the Treasury and the Secretary of Energy. However, while it requires future risks to be considered in the recovery, it doesn’t state that the re-building process must include actions to prepare for the impact of future extreme weather or natural disasters.
“It’s saying they have to be considered,” said Gerrard. “It’s not saying plans necessarily have to be resilient.”
This isn’t the first time that forward-looking climate planning has managed to find its way through an administration that openly denies the science on climate change and has been working hard to roll back environmental protections.
In December, the defense authorization bill included a requirement that the Department of Defense study the vulnerability of its military bases to climate change. And, last week, Bloomberg reported that HUD required states to take future flood projections into account with regard to rebuilding efforts after the impacts of Hurricane Harvey. The language echoes an Obama-era rule which Trump had repealed weeks before Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas.