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A Times Editorial

Editorial: A national catastrophe

Few could have imagined the scope and scale of the suffering now under way in Texas, where the catastrophic winds, rain and flooding from Hurricane Harvey already have destroyed entire neighborhoods and pushed tens of thousands of people from their homes. The immediate task is for the federal government and the state to provide the resources to save as many lives and as much property as possible. But Florida and other states along the Gulf of Mexico should learn a lesson from these searing images. The nation needs to harden itself against the threat of rising seas and better manage the growth of coastal areas.

Houston's emergency response system is overwhelmed, and it doesn't take much to imagine what a disaster of similar size would do to the Tampa Bay area. Even modest flooding from routine summer storms threatens dense, low-lying South Tampa and parts of St. Petersburg. New flood maps have helped to better define areas particularly at risk, but the downtowns still branch out from the water, and the rush of new construction in both city centers has only added to the concrete jungle of impervious material that keeps floodwaters from seeping into the ground. Much of the vital infrastructure also is at risk, from low-lying highways and civic arenas that could double as public shelters to Tampa General Hospital, the region's premier trauma center.

Cities can do what they can ­— invest in newer and improved sewer capacity, revise land use policies to steer development away from flood-prone areas — but any meaningful plan will take a combined effort with the state and federal governments. Gov. Rick Scott has expressed skepticism about man's impact on climate change and offered no statewide strategy to reduce the impacts of a warming planet, from rising seas to the frequency and severity of major storms. President Donald Trump earlier this month reversed an Obama-era rule that called for the federal government to consider changes in climate when constructing new public works projects. These are all steps in entirely in the wrong direction.

Just as with Hurricane Katrina submerging portions of New Orleans more than a decade ago, there will be plenty of lessons from Harvey about how to better manage these disasters in sprawling metro areas. First among them is the need for mayors and the governor to be on the same page about evacuating before a storm. Tampa Bay is improving capacity on the bay area bridges to move residents, but the interstates are limited in meeting the region's transportation needs. And the infrastructure needs across the region outpace the ability of the counties to pay for them.

A task force from the bay area has been dispatched to Houston; the swift-water rescue teams should be a welcome sight in a city where demands for service are expected to only grow in the coming days. The state of Florida also dispatched wildlife officers and rescue craft to Texas, and Trump is to visit Texas today.

A disaster of this magnitude reaffirms that hurricanes are a national catastrophe, not a state problem, and that the federal government is uniquely obliged to provide substantial help through providing disaster assistance, reconstruction aid, affordable and obtainable flood insurance and emerging strategies to deal with global warming. Florida should help Texas much as it can — and learn from this catastrophe to better prepare for one here.

Editorial: A national catastrophe 08/28/17 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 29, 2017 5:09pm]
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