Jackson water crisis spurs calls to bring the federal hammer down on Mississippi

Advocacy groups that see racial bias as a major cause of the water crisis in Jackson, Miss., are debating new strategies for taking the Republican-controlled state government out of the lead role when it comes to steering federal spending in its capital city.

Those tactics could include filing a federal civil rights complaint accusing the state of shortchanging the Black-majority city of 150,000 people when distributing federal water infrastructure dollars. Another option under consideration, people involved in the discussions said, is getting Congress to steer additional water funding to Jackson without Mississippi’s involvement — a sharp change from the central role states traditionally play in distributing these kinds of dollars.

And then there is what advocates dub the nuclear option: pushing the Environmental Protection Agency to revoke the state’s authority to carry out enforcement of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. EPA would then oversee Mississippi’s more than 1,000 drinking water systems directly, something it now does only in Wyoming and the District of Columbia. That would put the federal government in charge of not just distributing federal dollars, but also inspecting the systems’ infrastructure and ensuring water quality meets federal standards.

All these strategies would face daunting obstacles, and it’s unclear that the Biden administration is even willing to entertain the last one. But civil rights and environmental justice groups say it’s urgent that Washington take a far more direct role in ensuring safe drinking water in Jackson after three years of federal regulators pressing state and local officials to address the city’s ailing utility system.

Above all, they say, that means wresting control over funding decisions away from the state.

The groups have questioned whether the Republican-controlled state deliberately withheld water funding for Jackson, a city that is 82 percent Black and has a disproportionate share of low-income residents. State officials have blamed the city for mismanaging the system, and Mississippi’s Republican governor, Tate Reeves, last year said the city needed to do a better job of “collecting their water bill payments before they start going and asking everyone else to pony up more money.”

“The state is in a place, it’s got a lot of power to either make things easier for Black communities or to make things harder, and what we feel like has happened in Mississippi is that the state has used its power to make things harder for Black folks,” said Abre’ Conner, director of environmental and climate justice with the NAACP.

“This is why there needs to be more effort in order to have funding flow straight into Jackson and for the state to not have complete control over the decisions about federal funding,” she said.

POLITICO spoke to six people who described a range of possible avenues toward that goal. The NAACP is “considering all options in order to ensure that residents of Jackson, Miss., are able to access funding that is needed for them to be able to rebuild,” Conner said.

Reeves has told reporters he is focused on fixing the city’s water problems, not waging a divisive argument over who caused them. “I know you in the press really want to play the blame game and you really want to focus on pitting different people against one another,” the governor said, according to Jackson-based WLBT-Channel 3.

The immediate emergency in Jackson receded late last week when the city lifted a boil-water order that had been in place for more than 40 days, after floodwaters inundated the city’s drinking water plant. But it will still take years and millions, if not billions, of dollars to repair the decrepit water system, which first went into operation in 1914.

Mississippi is scheduled to receive roughly $75 million in federal water funding this year from the bipartisan infrastructure law, on top of $450 million the state set aside for water infrastructure from earlier federal coronavirus relief. And discussions are underway in Washington about sending additional emergency dollars — potentially as soon as the end of this month — to address Jackson’s problems.

State leaders have wide latitude to determine which communities get infrastructure funds, with Jackson’s needs competing against those of suburban and rural, predominantly white areas. Mississippi is one of 49 states that have received authority from EPA to distribute federal money to run their drinking water systems — giving the federal agency few tools to judge whether they are doing it equitably.

Jackson’s disaster is only the latest in a long line of drinking water crises in communities whose residents are disproportionately low-income and people of color — from Flint and Benton Harbor, Mich., to Newark, N.J. While the particulars of each city’s crisis differ, they have all raised questions about whether state and federal authorities are equitably distributing resources and responding to concerns from these communities, which have historically been deprived of federal resources through policies such as redlining.

EPA’s inspector general said last week that it will probe the use of federal dollars for drinking water and wastewater as part of an investigation of the drinking water emergency in Jackson. Four years ago, the same agency issued a scathing report on the EPA’s handling of Flint, finding that state and federal regulators failed to respond to the crisis with a sense of urgency, and that EPA staffers thought — incorrectly — that they didn’t have the authority to step in.

It is clear, though, that crisis at Jackson’s O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant was years in the making.

A 2020 engineering report from EPA detailed the plant’s many problems, including inadequate staffing, “inoperable” equipment and failures to monitor for lead. EPA issued an enforcement order the same year, finding that the system “presented an imminent and substantial endangerment to the health of persons served by the system.” In 2021, federal regulators and the city reached a legal agreement to bring the city into compliance with federal drinking water requirements.

Still, the state does not appear to have directed any of the nearly $75 million in water funding it is receiving from the bipartisan infrastructure law this year toward fixing the plant’s fundamental problems. And when the state’s Republican-controlled legislature set aside $450 million from earlier coronavirus relief for water infrastructure, it added an additional layer of review for applications from the city of Jackson.

State records indicate the Mississippi Department of Health awarded some federal water funds to the city in 2019 and 2021, although it is unclear what projects those dollars were intended to support. A department spokeswoman could not confirm the history of funding for the Jackson system, saying drinking water staff were too busy responding to the current crisis to provide details in a timely fashion.

In the near term, legal experts say a civil rights complaint, filed either with EPA or as a lawsuit in federal court, may offer the most direct approach to addressing the problems in Jackson. Title 6 of the Civil Rights Act makes it illegal for any entity receiving federal funds to discriminate based on race, color or national origin.

“I think that’s a serious claim, but I also think it’s a viable claim,” said Jeremy Orr, an environmental litigator who teaches water law at Michigan State University.

Civil rights allegations have, historically, often been left to languish with federal agencies, Orr said, but under the Biden administration they’ve received new attention.

For instance, a complaint filed by community groups over plans to relocate a metal-scrapping plant from Chicago’s wealthy north side to a community on the south side that’s home to lower-income residents of color resulted in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development threatening in July to withhold federal funding from the city if it allowed the plans to move forward.

Activists are increasingly looking to make similar arguments with respect to water infrastructure. For instance, community groups and environmentalists in January filed a civil rights complaint with EPA alleging that the approach Providence, R.I., is taking with its lead service lines — funding only their partial replacement — has a disparate impact on Black, Hispanic and Native American residents.

But civil rights complaints are targeted at only the immediate crisis, and Orr and others are also considering broader approaches that could increase scrutiny of the state’s treatment of disadvantaged communities.

At a minimum, advocates are pushing for EPA to take a more proactive role in overseeing states’ spending on water infrastructure, especially with the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure law passed last year set to deliver an infusion of cash to the states in coming years.

The Biden administration has called for 40 percent of those investments to benefit low-income and minority communities that have historically been overlooked by federal investments, and EPA in March issued guidance laying out how states can comply with the initiative. While governors and state legislatures determine where the money gets spent, those plans have to be submitted to EPA for review.

Conner, with the NAACP, argued that EPA should be prepared to use its authority to push back if states don’t distribute that money equitably.

“The EPA has the ability to look at a plan in its totality and see whether or not it is actually touching disadvantaged communities,” she said. “EPA could say, ‘It seems that there are some blatant omissions,’ and because of that they could reject the plan or potentially ask them to modify it.”

EPA spokesperson Maria Michalos said getting funding to “communities who’ve historically been locked out of federal funds” is a top priority for the Biden administration. She said that includes spending of the so-called revolving funds that pay for drinking water and wastewater infrastructure, adding that Administrator Michael Regan has been “clear with states that EPA’s expectation is that priority is given to underserved communities.”

Legal experts, however, say it’s unclear how much authority EPA has to push back on states’ plans, and Republicans on Capitol Hill defend states’ authority to distribute dollars as they see fit.

That legal authority could be clearer, though, if Congress approves emergency funding specifically for the crisis in Jackson. Rep. Bennie Thompson, the Democratic congressman whose district includes Jackson, has called for such funding, as have Mississippi’s two Republican senators.

People familiar with the discussions say additional money for Jackson is under discussion as part of disaster funding that could hitch a ride on a bill to keep the government funded past Sept. 30. One person said those discussions include the possibility of routing the dollars in a way that didn’t put the state in control. The people spoke on condition of anonymity because negotiations are ongoing.

Then there’s the most dramatic action: challenging the state’s right to oversee drinking water programs altogether.

The federal drinking water law sets national requirements for treating drinking water, addressing contaminants and monitoring its safety, and it allows states to assume “primacy” for implementing those requirements.

No state has ever had that power revoked, but “there are mechanisms for the EPA to take back primacy from a state if the state is not enforcing the Safe Drinking Water Act properly, and that includes where you are investing your money,” said Mae Stevens, a lobbyist on water issues with Banner Public Affairs whose clients include environmental groups and water utility associations.

If a state were to lose its right to implement the federal drinking water law, those responsibilities would fall to EPA, and could represent a massive new workload for the agency.

While the idea of revoking primacy sometimes comes up in a crisis, it has never gotten serious traction, said Alan Roberson, executive director of the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators. State drinking water programs typically have dozens of experts on staff, charged not just with distributing federal funds, but also with reviewing engineering plans and conducting inspections on the ground.

“Where are you going to find all the people to do this work?” Roberson said. “EPA doesn’t have it. And if you contracted it all out you’d be paying an arm and a leg for all these people and a lot of them wouldn’t be qualified.”

But a lawsuit wouldn’t have to result in a state losing primacy to have an impact.

Under other laws, such as the Clean Water Act, which governs pollution into rivers and lakes, lawsuits from environmental groups challenging a state’s primacy have helped EPA prod states into strengthening their programs.

“It is a little bit the nuclear option, but because there is that authority there, it does give EPA some strong leverage to fix underlying problems with state programs,” said Erik Olson, who leads the Natural Resources Defense Council’s health program.

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  • 21 час, 5 минут назад 03.10.2022Energy & Environment
    Biden to announce $60M to bolster flood protections in Puerto Rico

    President Joe Biden will visit the hard-hit Ponce region of Puerto Rico on Monday and announce more than $60 million in funds from the bipartisan infrastructure law to build up the island’s defenses against future storms.

    The funding will aim to shore up levees, strengthen flood walls and create a new flood warning system to better prepare Puerto Rico for future storms, according to a White House official.

    At least 25 deaths have been linked to Hurricane Fiona, which hit the island Sept. 18.

    The president and first lady Jill Biden will visit the municipality of Ponce, which was one of the regions most devastated when Hurricane Fiona dropped 20 to 30 inches in the southern and southwestern parts of the island. About 14 percent of customers in Ponce had not had their power restored as of Sunday evening, according to LUMA Energy, the private company managing the island’s power grid.

    LUMA said 92 percent of its 1.5 million customers on the island have had their power restored although residents in restored areas report the power continues to cut in and out. The biggest ongoing power loss remains in the Mayagüez region, where 32 percent of customers were without power as of Sunday evening.

    Mayagüez and Ponce are not expected to be fully restored until Tuesday through Thursday.

    FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell will join the president, who will be briefed on ongoing recovery efforts.

    The Biden administration released $1.3 billion for Puerto Rico to protect against future disasters in February 2021 and removed “onerous restrictions” imposed by the Trump administration on the island’s ability to access nearly $5 billion in additional funds, including for reconstruction and recovery after Hurricane Maria, according to the official.

    Activists have criticized the Biden administration for not initially including all of Puerto Rico in President Joe Biden’s declaration of a major disaster, as well as what they say was a slow flow of federal aid to communities that experienced catastrophic flooding. But they also have praised the Biden administration for some of its pre-storm preparation and mobilization for Fiona compared to the response of the Trump administration to Maria, which caused an estimated 2,975 deaths in the weeks after the 2017 storm made landfall on the island.

  • 1 день, 15 часов назад 02.10.2022Energy & Environment
    ‘A character-altering event’: Officials reflect on Ian’s damage

    Hurricane Ian was a “character-altering event” for the state of Florida, Sen. Marco Rubio said Sunday, as state and federal officials reflected on the damage wrought over the course of the week.

    “Fort Myers Beach no longer exists,” Rubio (R-Fla.) said on ABC’s “This Week,” referring to one of the areas hardest hit by the storm. He added that when the town is rebuilt, “it’ll be something different. It was a slice of old Florida that you can’t recapture.”

    The death toll from the storm has grown to more than four dozen. Many homes are severely damaged or completely destroyed, particularly on the western coast of Florida where the storm made landfall, FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell said on CNN.

    In central Florida, some homes are “still underwater” as a result of flooding as the storm crossed the state, she said.

    Rubio characterized the federal response so far as “very positive, as it’s always been in the past.” President Joe Biden had multiple meetings with Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, and plans to visit both Florida and Puerto Rico in the coming days, following successive devastating storms.

    The scope of the destruction led to discussion of a relief bill Sunday.

    “We do have to provide disaster aid,” Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “And whether that’s for a hurricane, or whether that’s for flooding, or whether that’s for wildfires, we’ve got to do that.”

    Rubio, asked whether he would support a bill for relief bill including funding for seemingly unrelated projects, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” he would “fight against it having pork.”

    Congress is “capable” of passing a relief bill “without using it as a vehicle or a mechanism for people to load it up with stuff that’s unrelated to the storm,” Rubio said.

    The senator voted against relief for Northeastern states for Hurricane Sandy in 2012, but defended that vote Sunday as against provisions in the bill that were not proximate enough to disaster relief.

    Scott, a former governor of Florida, avoided making judgment on the actions of local officials in Lee County, which did not send an evacuation order to its residents until Tuesday; several nearby jurisdictions issued evacuation orders Monday.

    “It’s something we’ll have to look at,” Scott said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” DeSantis has said those officials acted appropriately.

    Florida suffered massive flooding and widespread damage to infrastructure from Hurricane Ian, and the storm has left hundreds of thousands of people without power as it crossed nearly the entire state. It made landfall in Florida on Wednesday as a powerful Category 4 hurricane, and hit the coast of South Carolina Friday as a Category 1 hurricane.

    Ian continued to climb the East Coast on Sunday, dropping rain far and wide. But both Gov. Brian Kemp (R-Ga.) and Gov. Roy Cooper (D-N.C.), speaking on Sunday morning shows, said their states had avoided the type of damage seen in Florida.

    “Certainly we have avoided the worst of it, and we sympathize with the people in Florida. We’ve offered help to them,” Cooper said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

  • 1 день, 15 часов назад 02.10.2022Energy & Environment
    Live near water? Get flood insurance, FEMA admin says after Ian.

    Anyone living near water should buy flood insurance, FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell said Sunday, in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian.

    “If you live near water, or where it rains, it can certainly flood,” Criswell said on CNN’s “State of the Union,” adding: “Just because you’re not required to buy flood insurance doesn’t mean you don’t have the option to buy it.”

    Most people do not have federal flood insurance, prompting concerns of financial ruin, POLITICO previously reported. The storm has prompted questions about how people should best protect themselves and their property in disasters, whether through building codes, evacuations or insurance.

    Hurricane Ian caused widespread flooding across the state of Florida, with some homes “still underwater,” Criswell said. The death toll grew to more than four dozen over the weekend. Many died in Florida from drowning.

    Everyone should understand their risks for disaster, regardless of whether they live on the coast, inland or in “tornado alley,” Criswell said. Those rebuilding in Florida after Ian should also “make informed decisions about what their risk is” if they choose to rebuild in the same place.

    The state needs to aggressively go after potential fraud in the insurance market, Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

    In order to get insurance companies to do business in Florida, “you have to have stricter building codes … but then on top of that, you’ve got to make sure there’s no fraud,” Scott said.

    Strict building codes are also needed to help ensure people who choose to rebuild in desirable but vulnerable areas stay safe, Scott said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

    North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, said he is pushing people in his state to get flood insurance.

    “We know that particularly in these areas that are hit time and again that we’ve got to be more resilient,” Cooper said.

    Mobile manufactured housing — which has been criticized as unsafe in areas prone to natural disasters — can be “good for people to make sure that they have an affordable place to live,” Cooper said, asked whether it should be banned.

    “It’s sort of all of the above,” Scott said, asked about mobile manufactured housing on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

    Scott, a former governor of Florida, said he is concerned about costs because he “grew up in a poor family … You impact the poorest families every time you raise the cost of something. But you also want to keep people safe.”

  • 2 дня, 17 часов назад 01.10.2022Energy & Environment
    Dozens dead from Ian, one of strongest, costliest U.S. storms

    CHARLESTON, S.C. — Rescuers searched for survivors among the ruins of Florida’s flooded homes from Hurricane Ian while authorities in South Carolina waited for daylight to assess damage from its strike there as the remnants of one of the strongest and costliest hurricanes to ever hit the U.S. continued to push north.

    The powerful storm terrorized millions of people for most of the week, battering western Cuba before raking across Florida from the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean, where it mustered enough strength for a final assault on South Carolina. Now weakened to a post-tropical cyclone, Ian was expected to move across central North Carolina on Saturday morning and reach south-central Virginia by the afternoon.

    At least 30 people were confirmed dead, including 27 people in Florida mostly from drowning but others from the storm’s tragic aftereffects. An elderly couple died after their oxygen machines shut off when they lost power, authorities said.

    Meanwhile, distraught residents waded through knee-high water Friday, salvaging what possessions they could from their flooded homes and loading them onto rafts and canoes.

    “I want to sit in the corner and cry. I don’t know what else to do,” Stevie Scuderi said after shuffling through her mostly destroyed Fort Myers apartment, the mud in her kitchen clinging to her purple sandals.

    In South Carolina, Ian’s center came ashore near Georgetown, a small community along the Winyah Bay about 60 miles north of historic Charleston. The storm washed away parts of four piers along the coast, including two connected to the popular tourist town of Myrtle Beach.

    The storm’s winds were much weaker Friday than during Ian’s landfall on Florida’s Gulf Coast earlier in the week. Authorities and volunteers there were still assessing the damage as shocked residents tried to make sense of what they just lived through.

    Anthony Rivera, 25, said he had to climb through the window of his first floor apartment during the storm to carry his grandmother and girlfriend to the second floor. As they hurried to escape the rising water, the storm surge had washed a boat right up next to his apartment.

    “That’s the scariest thing in the world because I can’t stop no boat,” he said. “I’m not Superman.”

    Even though Ian has long passed over Florida, new problems continued to arise. A 14-mile stretch of Interstate 75 was closed late Friday in both directions in the Port Charlotte area because of the massive mount of water swelling the Myakka River.

    The official death toll climbed throughout the day on Friday, with authorities warning it would likely rise much higher once crews made a more comprehensive sweep of the damage. Searches were aimed at emergency rescues and initial assessments, Florida Division of Emergency Management Director Kevin Guthrie said. He described one submerged home as an example.

    “The water was up over the rooftop, right, but we had a Coast Guard rescue swimmer swim down into it and he could identify that it appeared to be human remains. We do not know exactly how many,” Guthrie said.

    The dead included a 68-year-old woman swept into the ocean by a wave and a 67-year-old man who who fell into rising water inside his home while awaiting rescue.

    Authorities also said a 22-year-old woman died after an ATV rollover from a road washout and a 71-year-old man suffered a fatal fall from a rooftop while putting up rain shutters. Another three people died in Cuba earlier in the week.

    In the Sarasota suburb of North Point, Florida, residents of the Country Club Ridge subdivision waded through waterlogged streets Friday. John Chihil solemnly towed a canoe and another small boat through the ankle-deep water.

    “There’s really not much to feel. It’s an act of God, you know?” he said. “I mean, that’s all you can do is pray and hope for a better day tomorrow.”

  • 2 дня, 19 часов назад 01.10.2022Energy & Environment
    News The Buckshee

    Hurricane Ian is expected to financially ruin countless people in Florida whose homes were not covered by flood insurance when the storm inundated the region with powerful ocean surges and damaging downpours.

    The personal financial losses are a reflection of Ian’s intensity and the fact that millions of Americans nationwide haven’t bought flood insurance. The federal government’s National Flood Insurance Program — the dominant source of flood coverage in the U.S. — protects only a tiny fraction of homeowners, almost all of them in coastal areas.

    Ian’s web of damage was unusually widespread as the hurricane drove storm surge onto coastal areas and triggered river overflows and flash flooding across inland Florida, where almost nobody has flood insurance.

    President Joe Biden declared nine counties disaster areas Thursday, making residents eligible for federal aid to pay for minor home repairs, short-term housing and other emergency costs.

    That leaves 1.3 million households at ground zero without federal flood coverage.

    In Hardee County, only 100 households have federal flood insurance — out of 8,000 households in the county.

    That’s a 1.3 percent coverage rate.

    Hardee has one of the lowest income levels of any Florida county, and 44 percent of its residents are Hispanic.

    “Ian could financially ruin thousands of families in Florida. There’s no better way to say it,” said Mark Friedlander of the Insurance Information Institute.

    Flood coverage is not included in homeowners’ insurance policies. That forces people to buy flood insurance separately, though almost no one who lives inland from a coastal area does. The vast majority of flood coverage in the U.S. is sold through the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s National Flood Insurance Program. It is unclear how many people have flood policies through private insurers.

    People without flood insurance “could be devastated,” Friedlander said.

    At the same time, the damage caused by Ian’s 155 mph winds could plunge Florida’s private insurance market into deeper chaos, potentially forcing additional insurers into insolvency and triggering a surcharge on almost every insurance policy in the state.

    The Insurance Information Institute, an industry-funded research group, estimates that Ian has caused at least $30 billion in damage. That would make it roughly the 12th-costliest U.S. disaster since 1980, according to NOAA records.

    Ian hit Florida as the state faces an insurance crisis. Policyholders there pay the nation’s highest property-insurance rates, and huge losses have forced six small Florida-based insurers into insolvency this year while others have stopped writing new policies.

    That has pushed homeowners into Citizens Property Insurance Corp., the state-backed insurer of last resort. The number of its policyholders has doubled in the past two years and recently passed 1 million for the first time since 2014 (Climatewire, Sept. 19).

    Insurer losses are due to a combination of extensive legal claims and huge payouts on policies in states such as Louisiana, which has faced two catastrophic storms since 2020.

    “Florida is already having a problem with [insurance] availability. It’s having a problem with affordability. And it’s having a problem with reliability when insurance companies are going insolvent,” said Nancy Watkins, a principal at Milliman actuarial consultants. “All three of the pillars of a sustainable market are under threat.”

    Friedlander said he expects Ian-related claims to drive several local insurance companies into bankruptcy, making it even harder and costlier for Florida homeowners to buy property coverage.

    “Many insurers have been on the financial edge for several years. This may push them over that cliff,” Friedlander said.

    The average property insurance rate in Florida is $4,231 — nearly triple the U.S. average of $1,544, according to the insurance institute.

    A major issue as Florida begins to recover is the extent to which damage was caused by wind or by water. The question has huge implications for property owners without federal flood coverage and for private insurers that could face billions of dollars in wind-damage claims.

    Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) danced around a question about whether Citizens insurance has enough money to pay Ian-related wind claims. Instead, he emphasized the storm’s damaging floods, which are usually covered by the federal government.

    “We are looking at a lot of flood claims,” DeSantis said, adding that Citizens should be able to pay Ian claims without charging a special assessment on its own policyholders, or on all insurance policies in the state except for medical and malpractice coverage.

    Watkins said disputes and litigation will arise when property insurers like Citizens deny claims because they say damage was caused by flooding — which they don’t cover.

    “In a litigious environment like Florida, that could be a perfect storm on top of a perfect storm,” Watkins said.

    Records from the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation show that insurance companies denied roughly 30 percent of the nearly 1 million claims filed after Hurricane Irma swept across the state in 2017.

    The denial rate in Florida for Hurricane Matthew in 2016 was roughly 40 percent.

    Citizens has $13.6 billion in reserves and has projected paying 225,000 claims from Ian worth a total of $3.8 billion.

    The good news for Florida is that it has more federal flood insurance policies than any other state — at about 20 percent of households. That’s second only to Louisiana. Nationwide, only about 4 percent of properties are covered through FEMA’s flood insurance program.

    But the bad news is that flood coverage varies widely across Florida — and among the counties that have faced the worst damage from Ian.

    In the nine counties that Biden declared a disaster, coverage rates for flood damage range from 1.3 percent in Hardee County and 3.2 percent in DeSoto County to 67 percent in Collier County, which is in the state’s southwest corner and is one of Florida’s richest counties.

    “There are going to be a lot of folks without flood coverage,” said Carolyn Kousky, a leading expert on flood insurance and associate vice president for economics and policy at the Environmental Defense Fund. “If you don’t have insurance, economic recovery from these events is really hard.”

    Some parts of Florida suffered huge flooding and are not among the nine counties that Biden declared a disaster.

    Orlando, which is Florida’s third-largest city, experienced up to 15 inches of rain and saw flash floods, according to the National Weather Service. The city has 130,000 households.

    Yet records show that only 2,039 buildings are covered by federal flood insurance.

    That’s a coverage rate of 1.5 percent.

    Inland flooding caused by Ian “highlights the fact that as climate is changing storm patterns, we’re seeing lots of flooding away from the coasts from stalled hurricanes and intense precipitation,” Kousky said. “Lots of areas are at risk of flooding.”

    People without flood insurance will have to rely on FEMA aid, which is capped at $72,000 but usually results in payments of less than $10,000.

    When flash flooding devastated eastern Kentucky in July and August, only about 2 percent of the households in the flooded area had flood insurance (Climatewire, Aug. 9).

    FEMA has given $73 million in disaster aid to 7,800 Kentucky residents — an average of about $9,350 each.

  • 3 дня, 7 часов назад 01.10.2022Energy & Environment
    4 things holding back restoration of Florida’s electric grid

    The restoration of power in Florida after Hurricane Ian faces a host of obstacles, including floodwaters and wreckage blocking crews from getting to the hardest-hit areas.

    It’s also up against history: The state’s utilities have spent years trying to make their electric systems more resilient to extreme weather, only to see Ian’s 150 mph winds and 12-foot storm surge destroy much of what they built.

    More than 1.6 million Florida customers remained without power Friday evening, after Ian had washed ashore in South Carolina. Blackouts hit more than 300,000 customers in the Carolinas.

    Utility companies still have no estimate of how long it will take to put the lights back on for all those Floridians. Duke Energy Florida said, for example, that wind was still too strong Thursday to deploy bucket trucks to help work on power lines.

    Here are four things to know as Florida works to recover from the Category 4 hurricane:

    If any state is best prepared for hurricanes, it’s arguably Florida.

    The peninsula-shaped state juts out into warm waters with the Atlantic Ocean on its east and the Gulf of Mexico on the west, making it a prime target for tropical storms and hurricanes spinning off the coast of Africa.

    That means Florida, and those in charge of its infrastructure, have had plenty of experience in prepping for storms and cleaning up after them.

    “Florida, because of the nature of the weather that they see, has a lot of experience with this, and as a result, is particularly well prepared,” said Scott Aaronson, a senior vice president of the Edison Electric Institute, the trade group for the nation’s investor-owned electric utilities.

    It took a few hard lessons, however, before the state and its power companies began to make significant changes.

    Back-to-back hurricanes in 2004 and 2005 pummeled Florida, drawing the ire of lawmakers.

    That led state utility regulators to require electric companies to come up with storm-hardening plans that included a more succinct schedule for vegetation management and shoring up areas around hospitals, schools and other critical infrastructure. In some areas, that also meant burying power lines.

    FPL is the state’s largest electric company, serving almost all of Florida’s east coast, much of the southwest and the Panhandle.

    During a period roughly from 2005 to 2015, the utility, among others in the state, worked to replace wooden poles with concrete ones, buried power lines underground and made sure that its infrastructure was “one of the most resilient grids in America,” Garner said.

    Eric Silagy, FPL’s chief executive, said earlier this week it is “indisputable” that the billions of dollars the company has spent on grid hardening since hurricanes in 2004 and 2005 has paid off “significantly” (Energywire, Sept. 28).

    Then came Hurricane Irma. The Category 4 storm plowed through Florida in 2017, leaving millions without power. The storm also led to 12 deaths at a South Florida nursing home after it lost air conditioning.

    FPL alone initially reported 2 million customer outages from Irma, and a spokesperson said the restoration would be the most complex in history for the company and the country (Energywire, Sept. 11, 2017).

    The outcry led state lawmakers to file a number of bills aimed at making the grid more resilient and promoting clean-energy policies designed to keep the lights on during natural disasters. But few of those proposals gained traction in the Republican-controlled Legislature.

    And as the storms become more intense, the utilities’ improvements haven’t been enough. Electricity officials have stressed this week that it is impossible to have a hurricane-proof power grid.

    “A storm like this is devastating, and it’s going to impact thousands and thousands of people,” Garner said.

    Hurricane Michael, which slammed into Florida’s Panhandle a year after Irma, prompted a new effort by Florida’s electric companies to make their grids more resilient to natural disasters. For FPL, that has meant continuing to replace any remaining wooden poles with steel or concrete ones and working on cheaper ways to bury more of its distribution system.

    Now worries are emerging about the supply of critical electrical components.

    Electric companies maintain what’s known in the industry as a “storm stock” — hundreds of thousands of poles, transformers and other supplies as they plan for major storms. The increase in intensity of hurricanes is just one reason the industry has raised concerns about a “misalignment” of supply and demand, EEI’s Aaronson said (Energywire, Aug. 22).

    A host of factors added to concerns about the supply chain, he said — including investments in the clean energy transition, labor issues, inflation, the war in Ukraine and the recovery from the pandemic.

    The average lead time to procure distribution transformers jumped from roughly two to three months to a year between 2020 and 2022, according to municipal power providers that are members of the American Public Power Association.

    “What we’re hearing from our members is that when faced with a major outage event, things get tight,” said Tobias Sellier, an APPA spokesperson. “When you look at multiple events, it gets really concerning.”

    Indeed, one-quarter of the public power utilities that responded to APPA’s survey reported “high risk” of running out of stock of at least one voltage class of transformers.

    “With the long lead times we’re seeing, the concern is that even with sharing (resources), eventually the stock will run out before these long-lead orders come in,” Sellier said.

    Florida’s electric companies said Ian’s flying debris, tornadoes, life-threatening storm surge and floods created significant challenges in repairing and rebuilding the grid.

    Gov. Ron DeSantis said this week that crews would be clearing debris and trees from roadways to allow utility trucks to pass through so they could get to restoration sites quickly.

    In addition to wind, flooding in Central Florida also has been a challenge, said Duke Energy Florida, which supplies electricity to St. Petersburg and much of central and northwestern Florida.

    Tampa Electric Co. said downed trees and debris presented obstacles in some places.

    Electric companies began restoring electricity, when possible, even as Ian’s winds were building Tuesday and continued after the storm made landfall Wednesday. Thursday was the first day it was safe to begin assessing damage to power plants, solar arrays and the rest of the power grid, however.

    Heavy rain and flooding as well as the continued threat of tornadoes are “still challenges that we’re still grappling with across the state,” FPL’s Garner said Thursday.

    Ian’s damage was catastrophic in some parts of Florida.

    Along the coast in Fort Myers, homes and businesses were ripped off their foundations and reduced to rubble, and fires were burning in some of the wreckage. A section of a causeway leading to Sanibel Island, where more than 6,000 people normally live, collapsed into the water and left the community cut off.

    As it surged inland, the storm dumped more than a foot of rain into areas that had already been saturated, leading to heavy flooding as far inland as Orlando, more than 100 miles from the landfall site on the Gulf Coast.

    The National Weather Service said Ian was tied with other storms as the fifth-strongest hurricane to hit the U.S., and the data firm RMS said flooding tied to the storm will likely set records.

    Tidal gauges near Naples recorded their highest levels in the 50 years that data has been collected, RMS said.

    The Peace River reached a record-high level near the town of Zolfo Springs, which is more than 50 miles inland, and the water was still rising in some areas, said Jeff Waters, a staff product manager at RMS.

    “A lot of these rivers haven’t even crested yet, and some of them are already at records,” he said in an interview.

    Waters cautioned that it’s difficult to tell if climate change is driving a trend of busy hurricane seasons in recent years. Ian’s damage, though, fits with what scientists have predicted for a warmer world: stronger and wetter hurricanes, though not necessarily more of them.

    “This business about very, very heavy rain is something we’ve expected to see because of climate change,” said Kerry Emanuel, an atmospheric scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “We’ll see more storms like Ian.”

    The storm could give Florida a chance to build a more resilient grid, said Christopher Burgess, a researcher at RMI, the clean energy firm formerly known as the Rocky Mountain Institute.

    Utility companies could incorporate more solar power and batteries onto their systems, which can be turned on more quickly after a shutdown, he said. And they could divide the grid into smaller segments, which will allow them to bring homes and businesses back online faster.

    The Inflation Reduction Act passed this year by Congress, H.R. 5376 (117), includes billions of dollars in funding for renewable energy and upgrades to electric transmission systems around the country.

    “We’re going to be able to redesign the grid, put all kinds of other options in the grid,” Burgess said.

    The drumbeat of stronger hurricanes should be a wake-up call, even for states like Florida that have a history of preparing for storms, said Alison Silverstein, a former staffer at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission who studies grid issues.

    Companies and governments should assess their vulnerabilities over a 20- to 40-year period and plan for the worst, she said.

    “The stakes aren’t just about dollars here, they’re about human lives and misery and societal and economic well-being, and the cost of additional climate change preparation and mitigation pales next to the costs of failing to do so,” Silverstein said in email.

    This report includes material from The Associated Press.

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