Being prepared should be a priority

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Last year, a flood. This year, a moderate drought.

Weather? Climate? Sure. But also a politicalmetaphor.

A year ago, this past week, the Cedar River at Cedar Rapids swelled to its second-highest crest ever. Along with the rising river came a flood of politicians, eager, with an election looming, to show their deep concern for this threatened city. Senators and congressmen heeded the river’s call, promising to do all they could to wrangle elusive federal flood protection funding. Candidates, from the top of the ticket on down, stood ready to help. Just direct them to the nearest sandbag.

A year later, much of that political juice has dried up.

Sure, our congressional delegation still is working to secure a long-promised $73 million federal share of funding for Cedar Rapids’ flood protection system. It’s been long authorized, but never appropriated. U.S. Rep. Rod Blum managed last fall to add language to a water resources spending bill directing the Army Corps of Engineers to “expedite” the project.

But action has been less than expeditious. Momentum has receded.

Maybe, just maybe, the money will be tucked into the next continuing budget resolution in December, when Congress will seek to avert a festive yuletide government shutdown.

We’ll have to check Santa’s bag. Cross your fingers.

But it’s Harvey, Irma and Maria who now top the federal shopping list. And, surely, the Army Corps of Engineers’ already backlogged, waterlogged to-do list will lengthen in their wake. U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley insists this wave of disasters won’t affect Cedar Rapids funding, but that seems like Category 5 spin.

There’s always a chance we’ll see flood control funding within President Donald Trump’s much ballyhooed $1 trillion infrastructure package. Trouble is, there is no package. But don’t give up hope. And whatever you do, don’t take a knee.

How hopeful are local leaders, the ones who so admirably mobilized local resources to shield the city from the Cedar River’s 2016 onslaught? Well, Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett now says the city’s next mayor will need to consider extending a local-option sales tax for streets to help pay for flood protection. He tried it twice, with voters rejecting it both times.

Corbett and city officials estimate the city’s $700-million-plus flood control system will be $300 million-plus short of the bucks it needs for completion in the next two decades. State and local dollars won’t be enough.

“We know there’s going to be another flood. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when,” Corbett told the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission last week, arguing tax revenue from a casino could help cover the flood protection funding gap. Leave no stone, or casino chip, unturned.

I’m not begging for Cedar Rapids funding. My point is this story of broken promises, indifference and inaction is a good example of how our nation is failing the Boy Scout test. Be prepared? Not even close.

Preparation basically is all we have. If you think our elected leaders will, any day now, lock arms and address the man-made climate change driving our deluges and heating up our hurricanes, I can only recommend moving to higher ground while you wait.

So we’re left to mitigate the potential damage. And yet, Congress was poised to cut FEMA by more than $800 million before Hurricane Harvey introduced an unfriendly amendment, forcing a different legislative course. The savings would have been spent on the Mexico border wall.

Trump’s March budget blueprint cut the Army Corps of Engineers’ funding by $1 billion. The nation’s flood insurance system is hemorrhaging red ink amid calls for reform. But an EPA director seeking to delete climate change from the government’s vocabulary will get his high-security office bubble. It’s all about priorities.

Speaking of bubbles, Democrats shouldn’t be smug. The Obama administration also failed to make adequate preparation investments.

The American Association of Civil Engineers estimates it will cost $80 billion just to maintain and improve the nation’s system of levees. That price tag doesn’t include the need for new ones. It gives the levee system a D grade. Don’t get those engineers started on our aging locks and dams.

And now, instead of a $1 trillion infrastructure package for a nation with failing levees and a pressing need for more flood and runoff control measures along its swollen watersheds, we’re getting a $1.5 trillion tax cut instead. The estate tax, apparently, is a bigger threat.

In terms of scope, there’s really no comparison between the flooding Cedar Rapids has suffered and what happened in, for example, Houston. But there is one common denominator. They’ve vastly recalibrated our understanding of threats.

In 2008, the Cedar River smashed its previous record crest by nearly 50 percent, spawning billions of dollars in damage in a stunned city. Parts of the Houston metro received 50 inches of rain, an ominous record. The National Weather Service had to come up with a new color to represent it on its maps.

Less than a decade after the 2008 flood, Cedar Rapids had to mobilize to stop the river’s second-highest crest. Those 100- and 500-year flood labels are quaint relics.

The city’s deployment of HESCO barriers and other temporary flood measures saved the city from extensive damage. Luckily, they had days to prepare and, in the end, faced a crest lower than originally predicted. But now it’s easy to envision a scenario where the city’s luck runs out.

With so much of the nation in harm’s way, you’d think this would be a national priority. Sure, right after we try to repeal Obamacare a couple more times.

And even if the feds come through with the promised $73 million, it’s still a paltry sum in the context of what’s needed. And it was awarded through a lousy benefit-cost process that panned property values, discounted our flood threat and provided bucks only for east bank protection. A year ago there was talk of reform. Again, action is lacking.

So this anniversary marks a successful local flood response and a drought of federal leadership. Let’s hope it won’t take another deluge to bring back the juice.

• Comments: (319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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