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Storms get worse while politicians cut our defenses against them

In 2012, Duluth suffered catastrophic flooding. In 2014, it was the floodplains of southwestern Minnesota. Things are only going to get worse.

In 2012, Duluth suffered catastrophic flooding. In 2014, it was the floodplains of southwestern Minnesota. Things are only going to get worse. Don Pugh

Hurricane Harvey killed nearly 50 people, forced tens of thousands to evacuate their homes, flooded the streets of Houston with raw sewage, and submerged toxic Superfund sites.

It was a big storm to begin with, but the city’s total lack of green space magnified its destructive potential.

How would Minnesota fare in extreme flooding? The Midwest isn’t immune, says Environment Minnesota, an advocacy group that opposes the president’s proposal to cut nearly one-third of the EPA’s budget. House Republicans are pushing a slightly less draconian cut of $500 million.

In 2012 Duluth suffered its worst flooding in history when torrential rains tore giant sinkholes in city streets and drowned 11 animals at the Lake Superior Zoo.

Two years later, another storm caused the Mississippi, Crow, and St. Croix rivers to overflow. The Minnesota National Guard was sent to rescue people stranded in the small town of Henderson, which was blocked off by mudslides and flooded roads. Businesses in Delano were evacuated. A dam at Blue Mounds State Park was destroyed. There was a state of emergency in 35 counties.

Scientists say climate change will only intensify these record-breaking storms.

Fortunately, the state’s 10 million acres of wetlands are a natural sponge that can quickly absorb floodwaters. Federal funds of about $25 million a year help Minnesota fortify wastewater treatment plants against storm damage. And the Superfund program is overseeing the cleanup of 46 abandoned toxic waste sites in Minnesota so they won’t become another liability of extreme weather.

Unfortunately, says state Rep. Frank Hornstein (DFL-Minneapolis), Donald Trump’s budget calls for deep cuts to each of these safeguards, including repealing the wetland-protecting Clean Water Rule, slashing the Superfund program by one-third, and completely eliminating the Coastal Zone Management Grants program. The more realistic House bill still squeezes all but the Superfund program, which it actually proposes boosting by about $28 million.

Last legislative session, Minnesota lawmakers also withheld $400,000 from a University of Minnesota program meant to help cities prepare for extreme weather.

Minnesota's defenses against severe flooding need funding increases, not targeted cuts, Hornstein said in a press conference Wednesday.

“The 55411 zipcode on the north side of Minneapolis has the highest rate of asthma hospitalizations in the entire state," he said. "North Minneapolis kids have a higher rate of lead poisoning than even the kids in Flint, Michigan. And Twin Cities rivers and lakes are so polluted we shouldn’t even eat fish from most of them.”

"We still have much work ahead of us. I fear with these deep budget cuts, the progress we made over the years will be for naught."