As another fierce winter storm swept through the Southeast and was set to engulf the nation’s capital later in the week, the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs held a hearing Wednesday morning to discuss how to better prepare the nation for extreme weather events.
Officials from the Department of Homeland Security and the Government Accountability Office offered testimony on their departments’ efforts to boost the resilience of critical infrastructure in the face of extreme weather, and discussed the impact climate change is having on cities across the country.
In his opening statement, the committee’s chairman, Sen. Tom Carper (D., Del.), said extreme weather has become the “new norm,” adding: “Events like Superstorm Sandy, recent wildfires, dangerous tornadoes, and historic droughts may well be just the tip of the iceberg of what’s to come.”
He said the hearing—which was scheduled prior to forecasts for Thursday’s storm—was not intended to “hash out climate science,” but rather to find common ground on the cost—both economic and in lives impacted—of not being prepared for extreme weather. He noted that 2012’s Superstorm Sandy cost the economy $75 billion in financial damages.
Other government agencies and scientific groups have also warned that extreme weather may become more frequent, and a Government Accountability Office report found that disaster declarations in fiscal year 2011 reached a record 98, compared with 65 in 2004. Some scientists, including members of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, have linked the uptick in extreme weather events to global warming, citing Superstorm Sandy and a batch of heat waves in the Northeast as examples.
The hearing follows a series of snowstorms in recent weeks that have ravaged unprepared states. A snowstorm in Atlanta last month stranded hundreds on the highway and forced thousands of students to sleep at school. In preparation for Thursday’s storm, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal has already declared a state of emergency for 89 of the state’s 159 counties.
In the hearing’s first panel, David Heyman, assistant secretary for policy at the Department of Homeland Security, said investing in resilience efforts in both new and old structures are key, citing a study that determined for every federal dollar spent on mitigation, the U.S. saves an average of four dollars post-disaster. The department is working with the public and private sectors to ensure essential services can continue even during extreme weather events, he said.
The department will also hold an event dubbed America’s PrepareAthon! twice a year, to allow individuals and organizations to participate in drills, discussions and practice exercises to prepare for “local hazards.”
Mark Gaffigan, managing director of natural resources and environment issues at the Government Accountability Office, said there are four areas where the government could limit its financial exposure: property and crop insurance, disaster aid, infrastructure ownership, and providing technical assistance to state and local governments.
As of December 2013, Mr. Gaffigan said, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s debt from flood insurance payments totaled about $24 billion. From 2004 to 2012, FEMA owed over $80 billion in disaster aid. Citing an April 2013 report, Mr. Gaffigan advised the federal government to improve state and local governments’ access to available climate-related information, local assistance, and climate change planning guidelines in order to allow them to better craft their resilience efforts.
Senators asked the witnesses to comment on how best to give incentives to local governments and individuals to ready themselves for extreme weather, appearing skeptical of a federal “one-size-fits-all” approach. But Mr. Heyman said the federal government would be well-equipped to push resilience efforts because of its national perspective. “That’s not something an individual insurance company can do,” he said.
The panel concluded with witnesses urging the committee to ensure the availability of the most sophisticated data to ensure that local communities and individuals are aware of the risks in their areas.