Congressman Earl Blumenauer: Responding to Climate Disasters—From Ruin to Resilience

With climate change fueling increasingly frequent and severe natural disasters—whether from flooding, wildfire, or extreme heat events—2021 was another record-breaking and deadly year for climate disasters in the US. In this interview with VX News, Congressman Earl Blumenauer, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, highlights his office’s new report, “From Ruin to Resilience: Protecting Communities and Preventing Disasters,” and legislative agenda for reforming the federal government’s approach to climate disaster preparedness and mitigation. Pointing to the widespread and unsustainable practice of continued building and rebuilding in flood and flame zones, Blumenauer stresses the importance of policies that strengthen communities’ ability to prevent, respond, and recover from increasingly inevitable climate disasters. 

Your office just released a new report called “From Ruin to Resilience: Protecting Communities and Preventing Disasters.”  Share the thesis of this report, what motivated its publication, and what you're hoping to accomplish with its release.

I've been working on flood insurance reform for decades—it's one of the tenets of a livable community. What we have seen in my tenure in Congress is that we have not done a good enough job. Many of the so-called natural disasters are actually caused by human policies and the failure to implement good common sense. I’m reading a book now on the history of Katrina, Katrina: A History, 1915—2015, which details how elected officials, the Corps of Engineers, and private individuals set up New Orleans for failure.

Last year has seen a dramatic exponential increase of what we call “natural disasters.” As a result, the climate crisis has gotten my attention—and likewise many others around the globe. As a result, the climate crisis has gotten renewed attention, not just from people like me, but from many around the globe. We had a heat dome in Portland, extreme weather variations, wildfires and forest fires. There were disasters in spades in California. For all the discussion of infrastructure, it was important to focus on one fact: the biggest infrastructure program we have for the next 10 years will be what we do to deal with natural disasters. We need to do a better job at using those resources to repair, heal, and recover.

How did you define what “disasters” are under present law?

That’s an important point because the Department of Homeland Security was thrown together as a hodgepodge—it being largest creation since the Department of Defense in the 1940s. It had 173,000 people and the federal government just folded FEMA into the Department of Homeland Security. FEMA got lost with the concern about national security and terrorism. As such, FEMA didn't get attention nor accountability from the President until we had that “You're doing a heck of a job, Brownie” moment.  

This report is one of the most visible ways that we show communities that we can respond to their needs and what we can do to make them safer. Natural disasters have a role in determining whether a community is/will be a livable community where people are safe, healthy, and economically secure. If we don't do a better job of anticipating, preventing, mitigating, and recovering from natural disasters then we're not going to have livable communities. 

You've noted that “climate disaster events” have been occurring with greater speed and frequency in the past couple of years.  Elaborate how the localities in Portland, OR, Washington State, and British Columbia have fared recently.

It’s been very destabilizing to the local communities. For example: in June we suffered a heat dome in Oregon. On three consecutive days we set all time heat records: 107, 112 and then ultimately 116 degrees. Then, a professor from Portland State University traveled around Oregon taking readings in areas that didn't have shade and lots of concrete. He found one reading in the heart of my district that was 180 degrees. This summer, a day after we set our all-time record, there was an all-time record set in a little village, Lytton, in British Columbia: 126 degrees—an all time Canadian record. And then the next day the village was destroyed by wildfire. In the same vein, during this summer the northwest felt as if half the area was underwater and the other half had no water. In February, the electrical grid in Texas suffered a power crisis as result of winter storms like that which afflicted Portland. These are just previews of coming attractions.  

We have seen how natural disasters destabilize our communities. At the federal level, preparing local communities for extreme heat is not even part of the FEMA mission. And in the Pacific Northwest—unlike you enlightened folks in Southern California—we really haven't invested heavily in air conditioning because we didn't need to, until recently. Just to show: Portland was the third least air-conditioned city in America, Seattle was the least. The destabilization goes further day to day life: extreme heat is going to disrupt business, agriculture, and individual families (who in some cases are struggling to even stay alive).

How has the large agricultural part of Oregon fared with extreme heat events?

It's been devastating. The extreme heat has damaged wine production, changing the patterns of what grows and where it grows. It's also tinged grape production with wildfire smoke. More importantly, it is extraordinarily difficult to protect the workers in our orchards, vineyards, and farms. We rely on fieldwork and these agricultural workers’ exposure to the extreme heat has been devastating. To date, we don’t really have good standards to protect agricultural workers. Oregon, California, and Washington are the only states that have put provisions in place or are developing provisions. There's no national uniform standard to protect people who work in the extreme heat.

Your report focuses on federal disaster mitigation and recovery programs. Do we have adequate resources to address these disasters built into our federal program structure today?

Yes and no. We have not done a good job of preparing our agencies and their programs to be able to help citizens and businesses contend with extreme heat and climate induced crises.  

However, over the next 10 years we will spend more money responding, recovering, and helping people after the fact. We're spending a lot of money and we're not entirely effective in terms of how we spend it. Each dollar spent on mitigation and prevention saves $6 at the other end of damage repair. For example, we don't have facilities that are built with things like misting stations or common areas with air conditioning. We've also got challenges in terms of our healthcare facilities. So no, the structure is not adequate now, either at the federal level or locally. We should instead spend more money on pre-disaster mitigation.

You made it explicit in the report that you are hoping to begin larger conversations on addressing these challenges. Any success in generating these larger conversation among your peers in Congress?

I think we're getting people's attention in Congress. To the best of my knowledge, our report is the first to put it all together: from the deficiencies of FEMA, the extreme occurance of these problems, to failures in infrastructure design.

We are not stopping there. I'm going back to talk to some of the journalists who've done a great job this year chronicling these natural disasters. They don’t just list the facts: how warm it was, whether twenty people died, or how high the floodwaters reached. These journalists instead do a comprehensive investigation on the public policy decisions that set up communities for failure—Middle Tennessee extreme flooding and the wiping away of a German village called Blessem. It brings to mind the terrific book on Katrina—Katrina: A History, 1915—2015—that looks at a century of policy failure, short sightedness, political greed and incompetence that has created a disastrous situation for Louisiana. The sea level keeps rising and Louisiana keeps sinking. It is staggering to think about what they are faced with and how rapidly the condition is going to deteriorate.

You’ve often commented in our interviews about the role of the insurance industry and the alignment of incentives and programs that too often undermine efforts to address these climate disasters. Is this still a policy focus of yours?

I think the insurance industry can be our salvation. They can't afford to ignore these conditions. They're doing some great research about the magnitude of the problem to discover what the future financial challenges are in terms of how they price their products. The insurance industry doesn’t have the luxury that the federal government has with our Flood Insurance Program, that somehow somebody will write a big check. The industry cannot wait for the politics to get so bad that they won't implement thoughtful, common sense solutions. Every time we draw a line to impose higher standards in the flood maps, Congress gets blamed, and it does not want to inflict that pain. The private sector doesn't quite have that luxury. And of course, they can walk away from markets.

We’re looking at what's going to happen in Florida over the course of the next 10 years where basically the state of Florida has guaranteed all of this, and with one or two of these massive storms, it could destabilize the whole state. I appreciate how the insurance industry writes on this in language that it's hard for politicians to ignore. We're fast approaching a time where we're going to actually have to abandon certain areas. We're not going to build a 20-foot-high seawall around the city of Miami. In part, because Miami already has daylight flooding due to porous ground and sea level rise, not as a result of rain. It is stunning that people are investing billions of dollars in areas that are probably going to be uninhabitable within 20 years, possibly much sooner.

By the same token and even more baffling, policy makers also ignore that the area of most rapid residential development in the United States is the flame zone. This area is between the urbanized areas and the forested areas where forest fires are the most dangerous. These fires are the hardest to fight, and we continue to have people live there. It continues to worsen: more people move in and then the likelihood of fires goes up either from backyard barbecues, lawn care equipment, or carelessness, and it becomes more expensive to fight it. Instead of just letting the fire burn, fire fighters rush in there to provide an urban level of fire protection, putting first responders’ lives on the line, and taking more time and money.

You also mentioned “livability,” which has been a policy agenda of yours for decades; elaborate on the impact of these disasters on how localities use infrastructure money to address the cleanup of our neighborhoods in ways that produces greater livability.

That's really the question: will we be able to respond to these circumstances, which are becoming more frequent and more intense in a way that will leave us less vulnerable after a natural disaster. Are we going to be able to impose very stringent building code requirements in the flame zone? Are we going to simply move some folks out of harm's way? Or are we going to enforce building restrictions in certain aspects of the flame zone or restrict construction of repetitive flood loss properties?  What we are going to do is draw accurate maps of the flood dangers and prohibit new investment in those key zones. Yet, it is a hard thing to enforce.

There's always the tendency to let people move back in, that they're not going to be defeated by this storm, or this fire, this earthquake, or this flood. We will overcome. But by the same token, what we end up doing is spending a lot of time and money, we put people back in harm's way, and we put families and first responders at risk. We are fighting a losing battle. We're not going to stop the ocean level from rising. We're not going to make our forests more resilient for decades and decades. We need to change the policies. It is a hard reality that we just are going to have to accept and encourage people to understand and accommodate. 

As a former public works director in the City of Portland and now on the House Ways and Means Committee persistently pressing for infrastructures funding for our country, our states, and localities, do you think local governments presently have the capacity to wisely use the funds forthcoming from Congress?

They have the capacity to use it better. And in some cases, some people are more affected than others. In these cases, they have more experience, more expertise, better staff and more resources. But everybody has the capacity to do a better job with the massive amounts of money that is being spent. I'm focusing as much attention as I can to have these conversations with people around the country to talk to stakeholders, to look at what we can do to accelerate the movement of the money in ways that are consistent with our values.

We need to rebuild and renew America in a way that is sensitive to what has happened in the past with racial inequities and injustice. We need to make sure that the poor people in various communities, particularly black and brown, don't end up paying the price. As such, we need to spend more time and energy working with them and not develop on low cost land. We don't want to be insensitive, but I want to target the vast sums of money into housing to help people with unmet housing needs. For example, in New York, people were drowning in illegally subdivided basement apartments because these were the only places that they could afford to live.  

We need to harness transportation and land use in a way that can help us deal with community problems. Three weeks ago, I was struck by an article in The New York Times about an experiment in Philadelphia where the city went in and took some of the most blighted, damaged areas of the city, and gave good routine cosmetic activities and did some low level infrastructure improvement. The article showed how these actions reduced gun violence and grew community pride. It's not just the broken windows theory, but if we make communities more functional, we have people who are more functional. I think it is a great way to start by using the resources to help us contend with, recover, and improve our response to natural disasters.

Lastly, pivoting back to your tenure in Congress, share with us your assessment of the present opportunities and political challenges that you're now facing? Are they unusual?

Yes, it's really overwhelming. I have worked in this arena my entire adult career and I feel in times past I've had some success in terms of land use, transportation, innovation, environment and bringing people together to solve problems. At the core of what we need to do is to bring people together to make things better. 

A number of folks sense that urgency, but there is a degree of dysfunction now in Congress, unlike anything I've ever seen—and I've seen some pretty ugly things over the last 25 years. Recently, I have seen Republicans attack their 13 fellow congress people who had the temerity to vote in favor of something that their constituents needed. The bill was crafted by Republicans in the Senate, at least half the drafters were Republican senators, and it was voted for by Mitch McConnell. And somehow, House Republicans think that's a hanging offense and they’ve got to be drummed out of the party. We've never seen anything like this.


However, if we should focus on the things that do bring people together—my work with public broadcasting, animal welfare, cannabis reform, and even bicycles: these are all areas that are not divided along partisan lines. If we can build on some of these nuts and bolts, particularly if we can strengthen the response that communities have to prevent and or recover from disasters, I think it can be an important building block to get us on the right track.

“We have seen how natural disasters destabilize our communities….If we don't do a better job of anticipating, preventing, mitigating and recovering from natural disasters then we're not going to have livable communities.”—Earl Blumenauer