Congress Takes On Sandy: ‘The Elephant In This Room Is The Impact Of Climate Change’

by Katie Valentine

Both the House and Senate held hearings on the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s response to Hurricane Sandy this week. Although most of the talk focused on disaster funds and FEMA’s effectiveness in dealing with the super storm, the issue of climate change was also discussed.

In their statements, several members of the House and Senate tied the effects of Hurricane Sandy to climate change and recognized the need to rethink how communities rebuild and prepare for storms in the future.

In her opening remarks during the House hearing Tuesday, Donna Edwards (D – MD) referred to climate change as the “elephant in this room,” saying a discussion on how to rethink infrastructure in light of major storms is essential to prevention efforts.

“The elephant in this room that needs to be spoken about is the impact of climate change and the increasing intensity of storms, the variedness of the storms and the breadth of a storm like Sandy…I think we have to rebuild and rethink our infrastructure in those terms, and that’s something that this congress and our next congress ought to address sooner rather than later.”

Rep. Edwards and others in the House and Senate hearings pointed to the need to rethink how the power grid is managed in densely populated areas; the need to improve water and sewer infrastructure that is close to coastlines; and the need to make transit infrastructure stronger as key priorities for congress and FEMA to address after Sandy.

“I think at a time when we’re constantly haggling – as sometimes we need to – over budget constraints, the importance of investing in this infrastructure now so that we don’t make it more vulnerable later on needs to be high on the priority list, because the damage to us in terms of our long-term economy and competitiveness is really huge,” Edwards said.

During the House hearing, FEMA Director Craig Fugate said FEMA has about $4.8 billion left in funds that can be dispersed, and that the agency will likely run out of funds by early spring due to costs of Hurricane Sandy. And the costs costs are still rising: President Barack Obama plans to ask congress for about $50 billion in additional aid to help states affected by Sandy. FEMA’s limited budget is one reason why cutting emissions and improving vulnerable infrastructure is a better approach than relying on relief efforts after disasters occur – as climate change makes extreme weather events more common and more intense, relief funds will be stretched even further.

In the Senate hearing, Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) called for infrastructure improvements, including upgrades to his state’s electric grid, bringing attention to the 1 million people without power during and after the storm and calling New York’s Long Island Power Authority “inept and unprepared.”

During the House hearing, Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) emphasized the importance of improving public transit infrastructure, fortifying sea walls and shorelines and creating more temporary housing opportunities for those displaced by storms – issues that caused major problems in New York during Sandy. He also said there should be more funding for the cleanup of mold, sewage and other environmental contamination for those who are able to stay in their homes

“Hurricane Sandy should be a major wake-up call,” Nadler said. “If we are going to invest billions of dollars in restoring storm ravaged areas, we should do so in a way that will protect people from future storms, and we have every reason to believe that major storms will threaten us again, and soon.”

But smart rebuilding can be difficult, because FEMA regulations are often inflexible in determining how and where to rebuild damaged and destroyed infrastructure. Shaun Donovan, secretary of Housing and Urban Development, said in the Senate hearing that Congress needs to address the inefficiencies in FEMA laws that stand in the way of smart rebuilding, and government agencies need to do things like provide waivers and block grants to affected communities so they can choose how they’d like to use the money to rebuild.

“One of the things the president has said relentlessly to all of us in the cabinet…is if there are regulations that stand in the way of doing smart things, cut the red tape,” he said.

At the House hearing, several members of Congress and witnesses pushed FEMA director Craig Fugate to cut regulations and streamline environmental and historic preservation review processes in order to speed up rebuilding. The big question is: will this streamlining encourage more sustainable, climate-resilient rebuilding?

Katie Valentine graduated from the University of Georgia with a degree in journalism. She is an intern on the international climate team at the Center for American Progress.

6 Responses to Congress Takes On Sandy: ‘The Elephant In This Room Is The Impact Of Climate Change’

  1. paulina says:

    The real elephant in the Congressional room is not the impact of climate change, but the impact of fossil fuels on climate change.

  2. Mike Roddy says:

    Denier Congressmen in Congress are going to have to pivot eventually anyway. Maybe Donna Edwards and like minded colleagues could begin to persuade them in the cloakrooms.

    This has happened before. In the 60’s, segregationists became civil rights champions, and in the early 70’s Vietnam war hawks said it was a mistake. The Congressmen got reelected. There is no shame in admitting error and going forward.

  3. Well, the oldest mantra on the planet is “adapt or go extinct.” Amory Lovins quoted someone in his recent TED talk as saying that “not all the fossils are in the fuel.” If the Congressional climate deniers want to keep their seats, they will have to do a quick about face.

  4. Very well said. It’s a question of time. Progress comes eventually, let’s hope we don’t screw ourselves getting there..

  5. Scott says:

    As the representative of the Phillipines said today in Doha, “The elephant in the room no one talks about is the United States” because the U.S. won’t get off the dime.