Why Is HUD Ghosting America’s Hurricane-Ravaged Communities?
By Jeff Turrentine
The costliest hurricane season in our nation's history took place two years ago, when 17 named storms—including three that went by the names of Harvey, Irma and Maria—all came ashore within a six-month period, killing more than 3,300 Americans and causing more than $300 billion in damage. So when the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced last April that it would be distributing nearly $16 billion in mitigation funding to the areas hit hardest by storm activity since 2015, officials in places like Texas, Louisiana, Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands must have breathed a little easier.
Alongside the $12 billion HUD was already releasing for immediate disaster relief, the added funds would help states and communities protect their residents from future disasters by paying for desperately needed improvements to infrastructure, such as revamping stormwater drainage systems, raising homes and roads, and building levees and seawalls. Last year, the National Institute of Building Sciences released a report showing that for every $1 spent on disaster mitigation, the nation saves $6 in future disaster costs. So $16 billion could go a long way.
As they envisioned the many ways in which they could put this funding to good use, state officials might be forgiven for having glossed over the final, innocuous-sounding sentence in HUD's statement, which stipulated that HUD would be "issu[ing] administrative guidelines shortly for the use of the funds to address grantees' long-term recovery needs." That word—shortly—is a tricky one. It can mean different things to different people. In this particular instance, folks expecting to be on the receiving end of the $16 billion probably interpreted it to mean: as soon as possible, since we at HUD know you're all eager to get started on the kinds of huge (and hugely expensive) projects that will help keep your communities from flooding, sinking, or being blown to bits during the next major hurricane.
But apparently that's not what shortly means to HUD officials. Because nearly one year later, there's been no sign whatsoever of those promised administrative guidelines. What's more, HUD officials have been giving the brush-off to states and localities that have begun to inquire—with increasing frustration—as to when said guidelines might be issued.
Why are these guidelines so important? Because what HUD is calling guidelines is really a set of rules defining how the $16 billion in funding can be used in the individual mitigation plans drafted by state and local governments. Once the rules are published in the Federal Register, these governments can immediately begin drafting those plans. But they can't get started without knowing what the rules are. And they can't get access to the funding without first submitting their mitigation plans to HUD for the agency's approval. So basically, until HUD publishes the rules, nothing else can happen. Everything's at a standstill.
Red tape is red tape, and the federal government has never been known for acting especially quickly. But what's proving more worrisome to the state and local governments that are relying on this funding is the radio silence they've been encountering whenever they try to find out what, exactly, is going on. One spokesperson for the Texas General Land Office, the state agency that would oversee any mitigation plans for the highly vulnerable Texas Gulf Coast, recently told E&E News that her office hasn't been able to get a straight answer from HUD despite making almost daily inquiries. Her boss, General Land Office Commissioner George P. Bush, spent his January sending the Trump administration sharply worded letters condemning the delay as "unacceptable," demanding that HUD make its publication of the rules "a top priority," and otherwise making it clear that Texas "cannot afford to wait any longer."
Finally, HUD seemed to arise from its bureaucratic torpor and address the issue, albeit weakly. An unnamed spokesperson for the agency suggested to an E&E News reporter that the delay wasn't due to administrative incompetence, but rather to extra-thoughtful deliberation on its part: HUD, this spokesperson said, required nearly a full year to "build a [grant] program from the ground up." This grudgingly disclosed excuse doesn't satisfy one Texas General Land Office employee, who notes that the complete lack of response from HUD thus far—no specifics, no drafts, no details of any kind—has led the office "to believe that the rules may not exist in the first place."
In other words, there's every reason to believe that HUD officials totally dropped the ball and are now trying to make it look as though they're just very carefully studying the ball: analyzing it, observing it from every conceivable angle, all to make sure that when the time comes, they can deliver the best ball possible to the people who need it.
Even if that were the truth—and not merely a face-saving story, which it almost certainly is—there would be a huge, glaring problem with it: The time for HUD to act came and went a long time ago. The 2019 North Atlantic hurricane season begins in less than four months. Even if the agency were to publish the guidelines tomorrow, finally freeing up state and local governments to set their action plans in motion, the public-review and approval processes would still stretch into the danger zone. Through its negligence, HUD is making communities still coping with crippling disasters even more vulnerable to future ones.
As President Trump weighs whether or not the situation at our southern border constitutes a national emergency—despite all the evidence indicating that it doesn't—it's worth considering what an actual national emergency looks like. I'd proffer that the current, desperate situation on our coastlines and island territories merits the designation. I'm willing to bet that the millions of Americans who live in these places agree.
Reposted with permission from our media associate onEarth.
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
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