The Tropical Update, Project 2025, and Drowning Government in a Bathtub

I’m not going to start with politics. Instead, I’m going to start with something that we often consider small talk, although there is nothing small about it: the weather. 

I am what you might call a weather geek. This means I obsessively track the movement of ridges and troughs, highs and lows. I follow the melting of the snowpack (in multiple states), and water temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico. I get excited about a derecho in Indiana, a cluster of super-cells in Oklahoma, a Nor’easter in Maine, or an atmospheric river pummeling the mountains of Northern California. For some reason, I sort of expect others to get excited about these developments too. Most folks don’t get too excited—unless they are directly affected. 

In the winter, I know where the polar vortex will park its frigid ass, predictably prompting soft-minded politicians to scoff at scientists warning us about the warming atmosphere and oceans. Unlike those politicians, I’m also paying attention to blobs of unseasonably warm temperate air that settle over Greenland, making it hard for both bears and Inuit hunters to depend on sea ice. And starting about this time of year, I spend quite a bit of time tracking what is going on in the Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean Sea, and the Gulf of Mexico. I always follow the tropical update.

So I’ve known for a while that this summer’s Atlantic hurricane season doesn’t look good. That’s kind of an understatement. There are a number of contributing factors, but the most important one is this: water temperatures in early May that are as high as they typically are in late July. Of course, there are some variables that could inhibit storm development no matter how warm the water is. It’s also possible that a majority of storms veer off to the northeast and remain what forecasters call “fish storms,” never reaching our coast. But still… we could be in for a rough ride.


Another guy who pays close attention to the weather is a fellow on Youtube who goes by the name of Beau of the Fifth Column. You may know him—if you know him—as a keen observer of the political weather in our country. He tackles every subject from LGBTQ rights to foreign policy to race to gender to guns. But he wears another hat as well: he offers clear and practical guidance when it comes to helping people prepare for the literal weather. Based as he is in Florida, he is especially attuned to the threats posed by hurricanes.

Beau occupies a peculiar cultural niche; he is white, rural, southern, and undeniably left-leaning in his views. Considering his politics, a surprising number of conservatives are in his audience, and they predictably write angry and insulting letters to him, but apparently keep on watching. Maybe one reason they keep watching is because of his excellent videos on survival skills and emergency preparedness. To date, he has posted about 100 such videos—most of them fairly short, but at least ten that go into a lot of depth and specificity. 

He is, in other words, a “prepper,” a person who values and teaches self-sufficiency and thinks it’s a good idea to be ready for when the shit hits the fan. His approach, however, is a far cry from the kind of swagger (tinged with meanness) that can go hand-in-hand with the “I’ll take care of me and my own” mentality. What he also teaches—passionately and unequivocally—is the importance of community. For every video that teaches survival skills, he’s got one that emphasizes community-networking. Neighbors helping neighbors. Again, about 100 in all. 

One of Beau’s videos helped me when I wanted to create a top-notch emergency kit (or “bug-out bag” as the preppers call it) in the event of an earthquake in Seattle. But I also consult Beau’s videos when I want to think in a deeper way about what resilience looks like—not just for myself, but for a neighborhood, a city, or a country. Part of Beau’s message is this: We don’t get through disasters on our own, no matter how dialed-in we are with our skills, no matter how well-stocked our cellars. And the more sizable the disaster, the more true this is.


Between now and November, I’ll be sharing some writing that expresses what I think is at stake in the coming elections. When I say this, I have in mind all elections, not just the big one—because what and who we choose at the city, county, and state level influences the direction of the nation.  

The ability and the willingness of government (at all levels, from city to nation) to effectively cope with natural disasters strikes me as one of the rock-solid obligations that any government has towards its citizens. And when I say cope with I mean more than respond to. I also mean doing our best to predict these events, prepare for them, and minimize their effects. It is a multi-faceted task that requires money, commitment, and expertise both before and after the disaster.

This is where I’m going to bend my thoughts to the 2024 elections, because how well (or how poorly) our society deals with these events is absolutely connected to who we put in office and what policies those people enact. And we need to think broadly about those policies, because what we choose to do before a disaster strikes is as important as what we do after one strikes. 

The government’s approach to natural disasters is not an issue that is likely to raise anyone’s blood pressure. It’s not a ferocious skirmish in the culture wars. It seldom gets mentioned in a campaign speech or an angry tweet. And yet, it matters—a lot. In fact, when the time comes for it to matter personally to you (or me), it may matter as much as anything in the world. 


The term natural disaster includes hurricanes, floods, wildfires, earthquakes, eruptions, tornados, tsunamis, ice storms, and any number of dramatic and oddball things that nature can throw at us. It can also include phenomena that cause damage cumulatively rather than in one dramatic event—such as drought, or an extended heat wave. A pandemic, though not weather-related, is certainly also a natural disaster. And I’d include human-caused changes to the environment that magnify the harm caused by natural events. 

We don’t usually think of these as disasters, but they contribute to them. Case in point: The Louisiana wetlands provide a buffer for New Orleans and other cities and towns when a powerful hurricane brings storm surge, wind, and waves; the loss of those wetlands amplifies a hurricane’s impact. Consider how a ravaged watershed in mountainous terrain can lead to disastrous erosion, flooding, and mudslides. Consider how the over-drafting of an aquifer is an act that can’t be undone.

And then there is the slow-motion but also irreversible and inescapable reality of sea-level rise—a looming disaster for coastal cities. About 40% of Americans live on the coast, mostly in cities. As a threat, sea-level rise is completely intertwined with weather-induced flooding. And it’s not a one-time event; it’s a disaster that continues—not just for weeks or months, but indefinitely. In cities such as Miami, New Orleans, Boston, and New York, this disaster is not as far off in the future as we may think. And the scope of it is mind-boggling.


It is a certainty that extreme weather events will increase in both frequency and severity. In fact, they already have—and the increase will only accelerate. Given this certainty, I want a government that will work to make our communities more resilient as we move into this difficult future. I want people in office who understand the connections between careful planning, responsible development, good design, and the intelligent management of land and water. At every level of government, from the city to the nation, I will support candidates and policies that enable us to predict, prevent (when possible), and prepare for natural disasters. 

At the helm of our ship of state, I want people who respond with expertise, commitment, and compassion to any natural disaster in any city, state, or region—regardless of the political slant of the region. In other words, I want them to be apolitical in the pursuit of their primary goal, which is to help all communities deal with the trouble nature throws at us. This means they must display a willingness to cooperate and coordinate with their political adversaries. A hurricane in Texas, wildfires in California, tornadoes in Oklahoma, ice storms or floods in New England, or a massive earthquake in my home town of Seattle: all of these merit the same level of commitment from agencies tasked with disaster response. 

These disasters hurt everybody. They are not partisan. They are not selective. (Well, maybe they are selective in one way: They disproportionately hurt the poor—those with flimsy housing, for instance. Or those with no insurance, or no money in the bank to start anew.) A storm is not a ‘respecter of persons,’ to use the old-timey church phrase. When the cat 5 storm slams into your town, it doesn’t matter if you are urban, rural, liberal, conservative, Christian, pagan, atheist, white, black, brown, straight, gay, young, or old. No one gets a pass.


Nature doesn’t threaten, it doesn’t bluster, it doesn’t air its grievances on social media. Nature doesn’t take sides in a heated debate about socialism, capitalism, or any other kind of -ism. It doesn’t say “I’m going to kick your ass soon.” In fact, in between disasters, it bestows on us the same quiet grace it always has: a gentle rain in April, buds on the fruit trees. In the time between disasters, nature doesn’t get as much news coverage as a salacious trial involving a porn star, protests on college campuses, or the latest outrageous statement by someone-or-other. 

Nature doesn’t draw attention to itself, and so we take it for granted. We go back to the default assumption that nature is the stable and reliable and mostly benevolent backdrop to our lives. It is a mistaken assumption. This is the reality we inhabit: From California to Tennessee, from Houston to New York City, extreme rainfall events have turned what used to be considered 100-year floods into 7-year floods. The Gulf of Mexico approaches the temperature of bath water in summer, making the rapid intensification of hurricanes a common occurrence.

Permafrost is melting in Alaska. Sea level is rising, as is the acidity of the ocean. Fire seasons in the western US and Canada in recent years  have been far worse than I ever thought possible when I was a firefighter in the 1980s. The Gulf Stream is slowing down, and the increasingly erratic Polar Jet Stream is becoming loopy, allowing warm temperate air to spill into the Arctic, while displaced Arctic air (the infamous Polar Vortex) spills farther south than we are used to.

What is the upshot of all this? In various ways, nature is kicking our asses. The consequences are not theoretical. People suffer. We need to pay attention, we need to build resilience into our communities, and we need to have a national commitment to take care of one another—as well as a national commitment to address the causes of our ever-more-frequent disasters. It is a huge task with a huge price tag—but the cost of neglecting the task is greater.   


A reader might wonder at this point why I bother to write these things. Haven’t we all made up our minds already about how we are going to vote? Maybe for the presidency that is the case, and I’m certain that my essays are not going to sway (or even reach) any true believers in the Orange One. But there are down-ballot races and local elections, and all of them matter. And in many of those other races, there are people who follow a certain strain of thinking that I think will take us in a very bad direction—you might say a disastrous direction—when it comes to dealing with natural disasters. 

If you’ve been paying attention to the Supreme Court’s decisions that don’t have to do with abortion or the former president, and if you’ve been learning about the game plan of Project 2025, you’ll know what I mean when I say that a primary goal of many current GOP politicians is what they call ‘the dismantling of the regulatory state.’ While this might sound attractive if you have a Libertarian bent, the implications of it are god-awful if you actually care about climate, disaster preparation, and the well-being of people—or the well-being of all creatures, for that matter.

Grover Norquist, that shriveled prophet of the gospel of unfettered selfishness, famously said that his goal was to shrink government to the size where it could be drowned in a bathtub. Catchy little phrase, that. It especially appeals to wealthy sociopaths who want to behave without restraint. But what about the rest of us? Right after a category 5 hurricane or a 9.0 earthquake, no one (except perhaps a billionaire who can retreat to a very comfortable bunker) wants government so small that it could be drowned in a bathtub. 


Budgets are moral documents. They reflect our collective priorities. I support the generous funding of agencies that help us take of each other, as well as taking care of the land and water on which we all depend. 

Given that extreme weather events are increasing, adequate funding for FEMA, NOAA, the Weather Service, the CDC, (and other research, land management, and public health agencies) means more than maintaining the budgets of these agencies at current levels. It means a significant boost in funding. It also means help for cities in dealing with sea level rise. It also means adequate funding for the Coast Guard and the Army Corps of Engineers. In the coming years, they will have a lot of work to do. 

These agencies need to be well-funded and staffed by men and women with expertise in their respective fields. It is madness to starve the budgets of these agencies at a time when they are needed more than ever. It is also absolute madness to purge the civil service of competent professionals, as Trump has threatened to do. An agency that is tasked with something as complex as understanding what is going on in the atmosphere and the ocean, or carrying out logistically daunting disaster response, must not be run by political hacks, grifters, and ass-kissers.

I intend to vote—at every level of government—for people who demonstrate a commitment to land and water management principles that support nature’s amazing ability to heal itself and reverse the damage we have inflicted upon it. I intend to vote—again, at every level—for people who care about what sort of world my grandchildren will inherit. People who put long-term responsible action above short-term economic gain for those who profit from deregulation and the abuse of nature. 

I want people in charge who are long-range planners and whole systems thinkers. I want them to believe in the importance of building codes, zoning, and environmental regulations. I also want them to be compassionate. I want them to care. It’s a plus if they have kids or grandkids, and are determined to pass on a world that is not hopelessly damaged.

I want leaders who understand that the work of disaster preparation and response is completely intertwined with the work of environmental stewardship. Here’s an example: Good urban planning that incorporates a lot of green space, street trees, and features like swales and green roofs significantly alleviates problems with flooding when a city is hit with extreme rain. These same features also cool a city during heat waves. It is hard to calculate the worth of such features, but they save both lives and money. They also are not a given; they are choice made by municipal governments. They are sometimes vociferously opposed by some folks who don’t want any demands placed on them when it comes to how they develop property.

In the aftermath of a catastrophe, we all praise the courage of first responders, and acknowledge their necessity. Do we also praise the foresight, wisdom, and necessity of those who help us avert a catastrophe or lessen its impact? 


Some folks with a lot of wealth and power see government regulation primarily as a thing that exists only to restrain them from making as much money as they possibly can. They choose not to see (or not to care about) how regulations can be the avenue through which Americans take care of each other. In fact, they treat the care-taking roles of government with derision, calling it “the nanny state.” 

They cloak their goals in the rhetoric of freedom. They frequently put the word burdensome in front of the word regulation, hoping that we will get used to the words always being yoked together. They hope we’ll forget the many ways in which appropriate regulation of powerful people has lifted many of the burdens that have, throughout history, afflicted less powerful people.

Here is a quick example of beneficial regulation that has nothing at all to do with weather: In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed, requiring a wide range of institutions to improve accessibility for people with disabilities. If you share your life with someone who has, say, cerebral palsy, you know how profoundly the ADA affected their life. For more than a decade, I worked as a group home manager, job coach, recreation therapist, and physical therapist’s aide for people who had both developmental and physical disabilities. I saw first-hand how the ADA transformed their lives, and I feel deep appreciation for this act of government.

We should not forget that the ADA was opposed by many who considered it burdensome regulation that limited the freedom of developers and business owners to construct buildings as they saw fit. But from the point of view of those with disabilities, the ADA opened the doors of freedom, equality, dignity, and inclusion. 

The feudal lords of the middle ages were not saddled with “burdensome regulation.” It worked out quite well for them; for the peasants, not so much. 

In contrast to the toxic selfishness of Grover Norquist and his ilk, effective disaster response (and preparation, for that matter) is a cooperative exercise in community building. It’s an opportunity for mutual care-giving at a time in our cultural history when the bonds of neighborliness are increasingly frayed. It’s an opportunity for both physical and spiritual connection between people. The work brings together people of all types: hydrologists, engineers, urban planners, first responders, public health officials, cooks, carpenters, mechanics, local merchants, Search and Rescue teams, and all manner of volunteers. 


I’m now going to briefly address the man at the top of the GOP ticket—and what he represents to me when it comes to the issues of disaster response and communal caregiving. And I’m going to veer into personal territory here, because every disaster—for the people experiencing it—is personal. 

If you know anything about me, you may know that I love my city. And if you know anything about my city, you might know that we have a geological sword of Damocles hanging over our skyline. That sword is the threat of an earthquake. And not just any old earthquake—we are overdue for the big one, a quake that might reach a 9.0 on the Richter Scale. 

This is not something that we think about every day up here, but for some of us (particularly geology nerds like me) it is never too far from our consciousness. That’s why I’ve put some attention into assembling a bug-out bag. A 9.0 striking a major city would wreak devastation beyond what Americans are used to—even after Hurricanes Katrina and Maria. The big one might not happen for a century or more. Or… it could happen next year.

A second fact about my city is that we are, in both a geographical and political sense, on the “left coast.” Our political character should not matter in regard to the government’s response to a disaster such as an earthquake. The problematic word in the previous sentence is the word should. I will be forthright about a very real worry that I have: If a 9.0 earthquake strikes my city next year, I have no confidence that a Trump administration would respond in compassionate, admirable fashion. 

For Trump, personal grudges become policy, and he holds grudges not only against individuals that have crossed him, but against whole demographics. One of his favorite words lately is retribution. He has an essentially vengeful nature, and I doubt he would be much motivated to care for suffering people in Seattle—although he might relish the chance to send in troops for some reason not related to relief work.

I’m not saying he’d do nothing for my beloved city in the event of a catastrophic earthquake. Let me just say I don’t think he’d give it his best shot. 

The GOP, which used to describe itself as the party of personal responsibility, has become the party of no restraint. That is what ‘dismantling the regulatory state’ is all about. No one demonstrates this better than the party’s leader, the man who flushes his toilet ten times in a petulant tantrum against water-saving appliances. It is beyond ridiculous. It is also dangerous.

His attitude is that of a spoiled child who resents any sort limit or restraint on his behavior. His message to water: “I’ll show you who is boss!” But beyond this cartoonish need to assert his dominance even over the water in a toilet bowl, there is something more sinister. It is an active malice toward those who don’t worship him, and a contempt for vulnerable people. 

I remember when he threw roles of paper towels at the suffering people of Puerto Rico. 


This seems like a good place to take a tangent that may seem, at first, to have little to do with natural disasters—although, in fact, it has a lot to do with them. I want to speak about the phrase ‘dismantling the regulatory state,’ and what I think it means to the people who frequently use it.

And I’ll begin with this exhortation: Every American, before voting this year, should become thoroughly familiar with the goals of Project 2025, the document put out by the Heritage Foundation that is functioning as a blueprint for what we can expect, should the GOP prevail in the upcoming election.  

Lurking beneath the debate about the proper size of government is a perhaps more important question: What is government for? Whose interests should it serve? 

We should not be fooled by the rhetoric of people who characterize regulation that ensures that our food is safe, our water is clean, our workplaces are non-discriminatory, and our labor practices are non-exploitive as some sort of oppression. It is not. 

Nor should we be fooled when they tell us that they are motivated by a burning love of liberty. Not when the same people who want to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency (because, you know, freedom) are pretty determined to intrusively regulate many aspects of both our private and communal lives. 

These folks disguised as proponents of self-sufficiency and responsibility would have us believe that their intent to drown government in a bathtub is grounded in noble sentiments about individual liberty. But it’s not about liberty at all. It’s about power: who holds it, who doesn’t, and who benefits from it. A closer look reveals that they don’t really want to dismantle the regulatory state—they just want to redirect it. 

The politicians who sign on to Project 2025 want a government that will keep its nose out of issues like water pollution, tax evasion, food and drug safety, resource depletion, workplace conditions, minimum wages, and discriminatory practices in both lending and hiring. In other words, they want a government that no longer inhibits their worst behavior, and frees them from any obligation to care about others. 

They want a government that will keep its nose out of corporate boardrooms, but they are perfectly willing to have that same government stick its nose into our bedrooms… and classrooms, and libraries, and doctor’s offices. 

I hope we all remember that the people behind Project 2025 who talk about over-reach (and define it primarily as an issue that impacts business) are the same folks who applaud recent court decisions that are incredibly intrusive and controlling of the private lives of Americans. They have every intention of extending that intrusion even further. They have embraced the goals of Dominionism, a particularly strange (and, to me, frightening) strain of evangelical faith that is hostile to the ideas of separation between church and state, diversity, and many cherished notions about privacy and personal liberty.

Make no mistake—the people who want to dismantle the regulatory state when it comes to the EPA or the CDC or OSHA are the same ones who empower religious zealots to call the shots from the courtroom to the classroom to the library to the doctor’s office. The choice they present us with is not between an intrusive regulatory state on the left, and a government that cherishes individual liberty and personal responsibility on the right. No, the choice is between two drastically different visions regarding what sort of regulations the government should impose. 

Take a close look at Project 2025. Please. Here’s my take on it: The politicians who embrace this manifesto will go after any policy designed to protect vulnerable Americans from predatory ones, defining such policies as “over-reach,” or—to use the most effective scare word in politics—socialism. At the same time, they have every intention of dictating the most private aspects of our personal lives, taking away civil rights that are grounded in the 14th Amendment—an amendment, by the way, they would undo if they could.


How am I going to sum this up?

Until the last section, the focus of this essay has been somewhat narrow: natural disasters and the government’s role in preparing for them and responding to them. Sure, it’s an issue about money, and science, and logistics. In some ways, it is also an issue about efficiency, scale, and coordination between levels of government. But at heart, it is an issue about care.

In terms of how we decide who and what to vote for, it is only one issue among many, and all the issues are connected. 

When I broaden my view to consider all the issues, I see a profound difference between the two paths ahead of us in November. I see a difference between those who essentially understand themselves as public servants, and those who essentially understand themselves as rulers who can shape a society so that they have unchecked power and are responsible to no one. 

I know which version of government I will choose—in every election, not just the big one.