Conservatives and natural disasters

Nice piece from Jamelle Bouie:

The scenes from Hurricane Harvey, of flooded Houston streets and freeways turned to rivers, are a level of calamity that’s hard to imagine. We don’t yet know the full weight of the disaster in lives lost or property destroyed, but it’s clear we face a long project of reconstruction and rebuilding. This doesn’t just pose a general problem for Congress, now responsible for funding recovery efforts, or the White House, which has to direct them. It poses a particular problem for the Republican Party, where anti-government and anti-tax ideology must contend with the needs of managing an outright environmental catastrophe…

This is obvious hypocrisy from Republicans, who oppose disaster spending for other states and citizens, but support it when it benefits their own. (We don’t see this with Democrats, who back relief regardless of circumstances.) Politically, it’s unsurprising. But the worse crime here is to demand spending cuts in exchange for support as Republicans did for Katrina and Sandy. Doing so is to attack the foundation of the social safety net: to say that help is the exception—not the norm—and that communities will pay through other means if they can’t bear the cost of disasters. And the related stance—help for some but not others—flows naturally from a conservative ideology that disdains universal public goods, seeks to reify the advantages of privilege and accumulated wealth, and frequently equates help with handouts. The impulse to craft a health care bill that cuts benefits for the poor to fund taxes for the rich isn’t distant from the one that finds conditions and strings when distant states need relief but demands unqualified help when disaster strikes at home.

Yep.  Sadly, true.  And, while we’re at it, it may feel good to blame Houston flooding on poor zoning regulations, but that’s really not it.  Henry Grabar:

The most important thing is this: No city is or should be designed to accommodate a one-in-a-million-year flood, which is what Harvey turned out to be. As Houston Chronicle writer Dylan Baddour put it last year, “Cars don’t have airbags to absorb a hit from a train.” If our probabilities about the likelihood of such storms are wrong because of climate change—and it sure seems they are—that’s a separate problem and one for which local planners shouldn’t be held accountable. After all, rural areas at the fringes of the Houston metro are also underwater.

That’s not to say flood-control planning in and around Houston has not been shortsighted. But zoning would not have saved Houston.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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