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Markowitz: In Harvey's Wake

It’s not hard for Vermonters to relate to the photos from Hurricane Harvey; families on rooftops waiting for rescue; roads, passible only by boat; cars and houses, completely washed away. It was just six years ago that Tropical Storm Irene destroyed communities across our state.

Just as we’re seeing today in Texas, state, local and national governments worked together to address the most urgent needs, and individuals, nonprofits and businesses came forward to help the response and recovery efforts.

While the immediate priority must be public protection and rescue, we know from experience that a long road to recovery lies ahead. The people of south Texas have a lot of experience with Hurricanes, but this storm was like no other. Harvey dumped more than four feet of rain in just a few days, leaving the millions of people who live in and around Houston facing a disaster of unprecedented proportion.

Climate scientists warn that storms, like Harvey, are expected to only get worse as the planet warms. When oceans and seas heat up, more water evaporates, resulting in storms that produce greater rainfall. It’s not inconsequential that, this year, for the first time ever, the Gulf of Mexico, never cooled below 73 degrees Fahrenheit.

So it’s not just Texas that has a lot of work ahead. With the federal government stepping back from its leadership on climate change, and going so far as to reverse policies that require agencies to predict and account for the likely impacts of climate change, state and local governments must step in to fill the breach.

It’s heartening to see Vermont continue to make reducing greenhouse gas emissions a priority. The governor has announced a new Climate Commission that will consider ways to advance Vermont’s ambitious climate goals while growing our economy; and this week, Vermont is hosting a Climate Economy Summit, bringing top thinkers to the state to inspire greater action and innovation.

But even this isn’t enough. Conditions in Houston are a stark reminder that we simply can’t afford to forget the lessons of Irene. We must continue to build our resilience to climate impacts. We must work with partners in academia, and our neighboring states, to assess our vulnerabilities and plan for future disasters.

But first, along with the rest of the country, we need to do what we can to help the people of south Texas recover from this terrible storm.

Deb Markowitz is the Director of Policy Outreach at UVM’s Gund Institute of Environment, and she formerly served as Vermont’s Secretary of State and as the Secretary of Vermont’s Agency of Natural Resources.
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