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‘Changing Climate' Intensifying Disasters: Texas Report

Powerful natural disasters in Texas on the scale of Hurricane Harvey's deadly destruction last year will become more frequent because of a changing climate, warned a new report Thursday ordered by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott in a state where skepticism about climate change runs deep.

But the report makes no mention of global warming. And in urging steps Texas should take to lessen the impact of intensifying hurricanes and flooding, the report makes no mention of curbing greenhouse gases in Texas, the nation's oil-refining epicenter that leads the U.S. in carbon emissions.

The phrase "climate change" also does not appear in the nearly 200-page report, except in footnotes that reference scientific papers.

But it is the latest government alarm that massive disasters such as Harvey will only continue. Last month, a White House report warned these types of disasters are worsening because of global warming, and citing numerous studies, said more than 90 percent of the current warming is caused by humans.

After releasing the new Texas report Thursday, Abbott wouldn't wade into whether he believed manmade global warming is causing the kind of disasters the state is telling residents to get used to.

"I'm not a scientist. Impossible for me to answer that question," he said.

The report was not commissioned as an assessment of climate change in Texas. Instead, it is the findings of a rebuilding task force Abbott created after Hurricane Harvey devastated the Texas coast, causing an estimated $125 billion in damage. At least 68 people directly died from Harvey's effects, and another 35 people died from indirect effects such as vehicle accidents, according to the report.

The Category 4 hurricane dumped more than 50 inches of rain on Houston, leaving the nation's fourth-largest city underwater.

But in underscoring the inevitably of future disasters in Texas, the report notes rising sea levels and extreme downpours becoming more frequent in recent decades.

It also cites a "changing climate" while reinforcing the need to strengthen dams and levees.

"Flooding risks for coastal Texas, and much of the rest of the state, will continue to rise. The current scientific consensus points to increasing amounts of intense rainfall coupled with the likelihood of more intense hurricanes," the report read.

The report was spearheaded by Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp, who Abbott appointed as a recovery czar after the storm. It urges state and local officials to think in "generational terms" to infrastructure planning so as to "future-proof" the Gulf Coast .

Sharp said there was no discussion about leaving the terms climate change or global warming out of the report. He, too, declined to weigh in on whether humans are causing climate change after helping Texas recover from Harvey for the past year.

"I don't know," Sharp said. "It looks like something's changing but I'm not sure I'm a good enough scientist to know what it is. I leave it in their hands."

John Anderson, a professor of oceanography at Rice University and expert on rising sea levels, said the report continues a trend of denials from Texas leaders.

"The tendency in the state of Texas has been to combat the changing climate without acknowledging the causes of climate change," he said. "The elephant in the room is getting bigger."

Abbott, who easily won re-election in November, has been noncommittal in his career about whether he thinks human activity is affecting the climate. Before becoming governor in 2015, Abbott repeatedly sued the federal government over environmental regulations as Texas' attorney general.

President Donald Trump and elected Republicans frequently say they can't tell how much of climate change is caused by humans and how much is natural.

Across the U.S. In the last two years alone, storms and natural disasters have killed scores of people, damaged or destroyed tens of thousands of homes and cost tens of billions of dollars. As the severity escalates, governors are finding they have to make disaster planning a priority or risk the consequences of inaction defining their terms and enraging voters.

Abbott's office released the following statement Monday on the commission's report.

Governor Greg Abbott's Commission to Rebuild Texas today offered to the Texas Legislature wide-ranging recommendations to help Texas better prepare for future catastrophic storms in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.

"The devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey required a Texas-sized response, and I am incredibly proud of how the people of Texas came together to respond to this challenge even as rebuilding continues to this day," said Governor Abbott. "Once again, Texans have shown that no force of nature is more powerful than the Texas spirit. I thank Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp, who served as chairman, as well as Chief Nim Kidd of the Texas Division of Emergency Management and all of the members of the Commission to Rebuild Texas for their invaluable leadership. As this detailed and forward-thinking report shows, Texas continues to be a leader in disaster response. And by working together to implement the Commission's recommendations, we will ensure that Texas is better prepared to respond to and mitigate damages from future natural disasters."

"Texas enjoys the best rescue operation in the nation because our first responders train year-round," said Chancellor Sharp. "It is important that we treat disaster recovery with the same commitment, and that we train and prepare our local and state officials to deal with the maze of recovery issues. The next natural disaster is a question of when, not if."

Among the recommendations in the 178-page report, "Eye of the Storm," based on lessons learned during the response to Hurricane Harvey, the State of Texas should:

Form an ongoing recovery task force made up of county extension agents as well as staff from appropriate state agencies and nonprofit organizations;

Predesignate a group of experts ready to assemble immediately for large-scale disasters to help response and early recovery efforts function more efficiently;

Maintain a single, well-publicized State website for post-disaster information as well as investigate better use of 911, social media and mobile apps to communicate with the public and local officials;

Develop catastrophic debris management procedures, encouraging local jurisdictions to adopt debris management plans as well as establishing a contracting template to protect against unscrupulous contractors;

Expand the role of the Texas Department of Transportation in debris removal, a first during Harvey recovery, after future catastrophic storms; and

Create a case management program at the state level to replace the federal version to speed up the response to individual needs.

The Commission also recommends that the Texas Division of Emergency Management be integrated into the extensive emergency management functions currently performed by The Texas A&M University System to improve the training of local officials in disaster assistance, emergency management training, mitigation and preparedness planning, and emergency response.

Following this recommendation, the Governor announced that the Texas Division of Emergency Management, under the leadership of Chief Kidd, will now operate within The Texas A&M University System. A memorandum of understanding has been signed by the Texas A&M System and the Texas Department of Public Safety; Chief Kidd will continue to head the Texas Division of Emergency Management as a vice chancellor of the A&M System.

Other recommendations offered in the report will require the cooperation of Congress and the federal government, including the creation of a single intake form and an automated intake system so disaster survivors do not have to fill out so many applications for services.

The Governor's Commission also looked at the need to future-proof the state's infrastructure. The report recommended prioritizing more than 4,000 potential projects and establishing a study committee to evaluate and propose options for a state-local partnership to help future-proof Texas against flood events on a watershed basis.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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