Editorials

The troubling bottom line: 8 lives could have been saved in Florida after Irma

The Observer editorial board

A woman is transported from The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, Florida, last week after Hurricane Irma.
A woman is transported from The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, Florida, last week after Hurricane Irma. AP

In the months after potent Hurricane Wilma left 98 percent of south Florida without power in 2005, state officials and legislators contemplated how to protect frail nursing home residents from the possibility their facilities might lose air conditioning.

The next year, lawmakers introduced a bill that would require those facilities to install generators capable of keeping residents cool and safe. The powerful long-term care industry objected, however, and the bill failed. So did a second, compromise bill in which the state would have contributed half the cost – about $57 million – for those generators.

Last week, in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, eight residents of a south Florida nursing home died when the facility lost power and a portable cooling system malfunctioned. A lot went wrong at the Rehabilitation Center of Hollywood Hills, including facility officials waiting too long to realize help wasn’t coming. But the chaos and tragedy could have been avoided if lawmakers had decided that imposing a rule was in the best interests of all.

We are in the midst of a full-out assault on regulations, both in North Carolina and Washington. In our state, the purge on government mandates is a few years in the making, as legislators have rolled back rules on everything from septic tanks to air quality monitoring. In Washington, the Trump administration is just hitting its stride on a massive reversal of Obama-era regulations, especially those that involve the environment.

With many of the rollbacks, the calculation is both ideological and economic. Conservatives largely believe government shouldn’t be telling people how to run their companies, and they believe that the threats to bottom lines are more dire than the imagined dangers that regulations protect against. And so, they trust companies to do the right thing, and they trust laws will punish those that truly misbehave.

Businesses, however, too often cut corners instead of protecting customers. They skirt safety rules in the belief that nothing will go wrong. But things do.

Just two weeks before Irma hit Florida, explosions at the Houston-area plant Arkema after Hurricane Harvey exposed significant flaws in the regulations of chemicals in the United States. As the New York Times reported, the Environmental Protection Agency has long overlooked some chemicals that pose explosion hazards, and now, EPA chief Scott Pruitt is rolling back regulations that would give the agency more regulatory oversight over chemical plants like Arkema.

That’s not all Pruitt has done. The EPA also has moved to repeal a rule preventing pollution in U.S. waterways, and it delayed a rule that required fossil fuel companies to curb leaks of potentially dangerous methane.

Yes, some regulatory reform is worthy. There are regulations that are either inefficient or too costly given the benign consequences they target. But Republicans shouldn’t reflexively support the rolling back of rules, especially on the false premise that they’re “job killing” mandates. As Florida reminded us, the alternative can be a more tragic kind of loss.

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