"This is called flood mitigation": An Analysis of Disaster & Emergency Management References at the CNN Climate Change Town Hall

I watched 7-hours of democratic presidential candidates answer questions about climate change and listened for any comments that were directly related to disasters and emergency management.

I want to emphasize these are the directly related comments. In many ways, every single question asked was about emergency management because climate change is so central to the work we do. We cannot understand disasters nor emergency management, anymore, without understanding climate change. It underlies every decision we make.

Emergency management’s stake in the climate conversation is huge and we need to have our voices represented in these types of events. To that end, I live-tweeted the Town Hall FOR SEVEN ACTUAL HOURS. At one point, I looked up and realized the sun had set and I was sitting in the dark. Someone on twitter noted the metaphor. Hopefully what comes next, every single mention of disasters and emergency management, can help shine a light on that darkness.

Julian Castro

In his opening statement Castro noted:

“scientists already are telling us that we're seeing the consequences of the climate crisis right now… You mentioned Hurricane Dorian that's about to hit landfall. These hurricanes are happening more frequently and they're happening with greater intensity. It seems like these floods, that they call 500- year floods, are happening every other year now.”

This is all true. The consequences of the climate crisis are occurring now (a point that was reiterated by other candidates later in the night. Scientists have also found connections between climate change and hurricanes and the frequency of flood disasters.

Question from the audience: “Sea level around Florida is up to 8 inches higher than it was in 1950. Unfortunately, every inch of sea level rise makes hurricanes even more damaging due to increased storm surge along our coast and further inland along our rivers. This threat is made worse due to aging infrastructure that was not designed to deal with rising waters. What will you do to address this growing threat?”

”I appreciate that question. I'm running for president and I'm one of the few folks that are running that actually has executive experience. So when I was Secretary of Housing and Urban Development for President Obama, one of the things that we worked on was something called the National Disaster Resilience Competition.  This was a billion-dollar competition among communities that had been hit by a natural disaster within a few years before applying for funds. The goal was to invest in those communities so that they could recover in a more sustainable way and be prepared in case there's another natural disaster.  My plan calls for investing in national disaster resilience investment and also, very importantly, in pre-disaster mitigation. We don't want to wait until there's a natural disaster to actually make our communities more sustainable. I would invest in that. And then most importantly, we actually have to tackle the issue of the climate crisis so that these storms are less likely to happen in the first place. And that means the entire menu of investments that we need to make to cut down on carbon emissions and slow the process of the climate crisis.”

The National Disaster Resilience Competition was novel in its efforts although I’d argue there were significant challenges in how it was administered. Ultimately the benefit largely centered around the winning community. I don’t expect the Competition to be a model for the future and I’d be surprised if Castro thought so. However, his having this on his resume is impressive compared to the other candidates.

He’s quite clear in recognizing the importance of a proactive approach to emergency management through investment in mitigation and preparedness.

Question from the audience: “This is a very common and very personal question. The credit union, the state employee's credit union in North Carolina, my husband and I own our one and only 2,000 square-foot house, which is in the 500-year flood plane. We are required to carry FEMA flood insurance. But it rises in cost 18 percent every year. We may lose our house at some point when we can no longer afford the insurance. What proposals of yours would help us stay in our home?”

“Yes. Thank you very much for that question. And your situation is like the situation that a lot of Americans find themselves in. I remember when I was a councilman in San Antonio and we had this flash flood that happened in 2002. There were about 150 homes that were affected by it. And a lot of the folks that were affected by it found out that they had no recourse, they had no flood insurance. So I've seen it from that perspective and we need to make sure that more people are protected by our national flood insurance program. The challenge, as you point out, is that too oftentimes it's getting so expensive that folks can't afford it. So here's what I would do. In my plan, we actually help subsidize the cost for folks because I want to make sure that people are protected, that their property is protected. And in those instances where, because of a natural disaster, they have to rebuild, that they're able to do that. When I was HUD secretary I traveled to places like Baton Rouge, Louisiana. And I traveled to the Rockaways and watched as people, who had built their entire livelihood -- and this was their only asset really, their home -- felt helpless, like there was nothing that they could do because they had lost it all. I want to make sure that people are protected and that's why we would make an investment in the national flood insurance program not only to make sure that it's around but to strengthen it and improve it for everyday Americans who need it. And we also recognize that there's a component of environmental justice at work here, too, because you all know that oftentimes the first folks to get flooded out are the poorest communities. They're often communities of color. They're the ones that can least afford to deal with the climate crisis. I grew up, my brother, Joaquin, and I grew up on the west side of San Antonio and there were still a lot of streets there -- and I'm sure many folks here in the audience can relate to this -- there are a lot of places in those neighborhoods that, all it had to do was rain a little bit and people's property would get flooded out. Or they would, you know, it would start -- the water would start creeping into their garage or their living room, their part of the house. As we experience more storms with more intensity, we need to both take the right steps to prevent climate change so that that won't happen. But then when it does, if it does, to address it, no matter who you are, and make it affordable, in part, through that national flood insurance program.”

This was among the most significant emergency management answer of the night. The National Flood Insurance Program is complicated and controversial but a lifeline for families across the country. The program is surrounded in political turmoil and lives under constant threat of not being reauthorized by Congress. Previous reform attempts did not go well to the point that they were largely reversed. As our national flood risk increases the NFIP is perhaps our best tool to help those who need to recovery. Here, Castro is making a big statement: not only will he keep the NFIP in place but he will continue to subsidize rates. Certainly more details are needed but this is a big start.

Importantly, he connects disparities in disaster impacts and the resources to rebuild to environmental justice. This became a key theme throughout the night.

This response flowed into the next question: “What will your administration do to give voice to this issue, also known as environmental racism?”

“We know that this climate crisis is going to affect all Americans and all folks around the world. But as I mentioned a little bit earlier, we also know that it's going to hit some people particularly hard, people -- the first people to get affected. And I -- after I announced my campaign, the first visit that I made was not to Iowa or to New Hampshire. It was to San Juan, Puerto Rico, to tell the people of the island there that we were with them and we would make sure that they could recover from Hurricane Maria. When I was there, I went into this neighborhood called La Playita (ph). And I met on the street a gentleman who was 90 years old, who had a can of paint on the ground. He was rail thin and he was painting back his property that had been damaged in the hurricane. And I think about that gentleman in La Playita, I think about poor communities along the East Coast, I think about, frankly, I connect the dots to places like Flint, Michigan, and I know that too oftentimes it's people who are poor, communities of color who take the brunt of storms that are getting more frequent and more powerful.  And so my plan actually calls for new civil rights legislation to be able to address environmental injustice, including -- (APPLAUSE) -- including making sure that there's a private right of action to go -- to file lawsuits against polluters. This is the way that it used to be until a Supreme Court case a few years ago. The problem is that, when you get administrations like the Trump administration, you can't rely on the government to make a claim. I want to vest that power back in the people so that when we can show a disparate impact of certain practices of companies, of polluters that everyday Americans are able to file suit to try and get some sort of recourse. I also believe that we need to invest in these communities and their ability to withstand storms and other natural disasters and their ability to have something as simple as clean water or breathe clean air.  When I was Secretary of Housing, one of the things that I found out was that 70 percent of HUD-funded public housing or subsidized housing was within a mile of a superfund site. Think about that. That's the environmental racism and injustice that we're dealing with and my plan would equip Americans with the tools to fight back and also make investments so that we can bring justice to right now what is a tremendous injustice.”

Castro is sophisticated, compared to other candidates, in his ability to connect multiple disaster issues to environmental racism and injustice. This is a central issue for emergency management and a president who understands this would likely be beneficial in shifting the national approach to mitigation and preparedness.

Andrew Yang

An audience question: “I live at sea level in New York city. You said in a presidential debate that we need to retreat from vulnerable neighborhoods such as mine. Is this a viable option for New York? It's one of America's great cultural and economic assets. How do you propose to help places at risk due to climate change? Will funds be available for adaptation and relocation? How will those funds be generated and distributed?”

“ Thanks for the question. I was just in Portsmouth, new Hampshire where they have hundreds of homes flooding on a regular basis, 26 times or more per year. So imagine living in a home that's prone to flooding at that level of frequency which is even more extreme than I suspect your home here in New York. So we would 100 percent make funds available to communities around the country for adaptation and resilience. And then we would take -- and the big picture is, we subsidize the fossil fuel industry to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars. And so now everyone is like (ph) where's the money? We know where the money is. We put hundreds of billions into the fossil fuel industry. We're still subsidizing it to this day, and now it's time to take some of that money and channel it to the needs of the American people. We're looking -- there are already climate refugees in the United States of America, people that we relocated from an island that was essentially becoming uninhabitable in Louisiana and we moved those people. None of this is speculative anymore.”

Yang is referring to a growing flood risk in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Adaptation and resilience are the right buzzwords but for those of us entrenched in this work this statement is empty. What funds? Which communities? What kind of adaptation? What are you including in resilience? (Other candidates didn’t address these key issues either.)

The sentiment is correct regarding the refugee comment here. There are already people in the United States that have been displaced from their homes largely because of climate change. I do need to pause and offer a word of caution about the often misuse of the word refugee. That said Yang was referring here to one specific community: Isle de Jean Charles. This community was mentioned multiple times throughout the night (also the “winners” of the National Resilience Competition mentioned by Castro. I will clarify that in this case the community refers to themselves as “America’s first climate refugees”. It’s complicated.

He then added,

We need to get with the program, wake up to the reality around us and let you know that you're not on your own. This is not a you problem, this is an us problem. And what do sophisticated, advanced societies do when it's an us problem? We put some of our collective resources to work and we solve the problems on the ground.”

I assume he was referencing the climate change problem as a whole but I think it’s particularly relevant for emergency management. Often in emergency management there is an emphasis on the individual, particularly when it comes to preparedness efforts. Although this aligns with American ideology it does not align with what we know from the research — disasters are events that bring about collective responses.

Yang identified his “Freedom Dividend” as the starting point for funding mitigation projects saying:

“ Freedom dividend, everyone gets $1,000 a month, $12,000 a year. That would help citizens of this country protect themselves in a natural disaster. Because we all know when Hurricane Dorian or Hurricane Harvey hits, who suffers? Poor people, people of color, people who don't have a car they can get into and just drive to some -- some relatives' house. So we need to actually start protecting ourselves. And the last thing is we need to start reverse the damage we're doing to our environment. It's not enough to do less of the bad, we have to do some of the good. So that's reforestation, that's ocean seeding, that's starting to actually rebuild the ecosystems that we're harming.”

If everyone got $12,000 a year to put towards emergency management related tasks we’d be looking real good. My issue is that this $1000 a month is Yang's answer for everything. This money isn’t just going to mitigation efforts, he’s also got it earmarked for the student loan crisis, health insurance, and a long list of other issues.

He follows Castro’s lead in pointing out the differential impacts of disasters.

He expands the mitigation conversation into “natural mitigation” which is important. We can’t just build our way out of our risk.

Bill Weir asked Yang, “A moment ago you mentioned that sinking town in Louisiana and I'm so glad you did because we have a map. It is called Isle de Jean Charles. That is the Gulf of Mexico and this is 1985. Watch in a single generation how much seawater has taken over this part of America. And this is what it looks like. It is, in a lifetime, slipping into the sea and it's so doomed that the federal government is spending, as you said, $48 million to move about two dozen families 40 miles north. But I spent time there and half of them do not want to leave the only home they've ever known. Some don't trust the government. They think this is a land grab. So if it's this expensive and costly to move less than 100 people, how do you envision a managed retreat for maybe millions from places like Miami, Charleston, elsewhere?”

“This is one of the great challenges of our time. And most Americans like where they live. Most Americans do not have a strong inclination to leave, even in the wake of a natural disaster. So first we need to try and invest in making some of these communities more resilient. Which will not work in some cases, as in this town, but it will work in others. New York is an example where if we were to invest significant resources, we might be able to save -- essentially it's one of those situations where you invest a billion and then save perhaps $5 or $10 billion in damages, if you do it right.  So there's some where you pre-invest before the disaster hits.

The second thing is that when there are -- are communities that need to be rebuilt, we need to do a better job of frankly building institutional trust in our society and the government again. Because right now many Americans mistrust our government. We're living in a country where 78 percent of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck, almost half can't afford an unexpected $500 bill. So when you come to them and say hey, we have your interest at heart, they have their heads down and there's not much optimism or faith. So the freedom dividend of $1,000 a month, it has many effects, but one thing it does, it gets people's heads up. And studies have shown that getting the boot off people's throats economically, one, it gets them focused on the big problems like climate change -- because it's very hard to focus 10 years in the future if you're worried about next month's rent. But the second thing it does is it restores public faith and optimism and trust in our institutions, and then we'll be able to galvanize more energy around relocation over time.”

Yang does a good job here of weaving together unequal impacts with mitigation efforts and recovery. Still don’t see a viable solution proposed.

I will add that Yang is alluding here to the cost-benefit-analysis of doing mitigation pre-disaster. The statistic is that for every $1 invested by the federal government in mitigation, $6 is saved in recovery.

Kamala Harris

Harris is asked a question about misinformation campaigns by a Paradise survivor,

“I am so sorry. I -- David, I visited Paradise while the embers were still burning there. And I don't need to tell you what you know and our living. But, for everyone else, so going to Paradise, California, while the embers were still burning, entire neighborhoods were wiped out, and, like, literally leveled, where the only thing that stood were the chimneys from the fireplaces that, to me, looked like tombstones in a graveyard. The devastation was enormous. There were firefighters that were fighting fires while they knew their own homes were burning to the ground. And so you are a living testament to -- and thank you for your courage to share your story about the real devastation on a daily basis this taking place in our country and around the world. What do we do? Well, this is what we did with the tobacco companies. We sued them. We took them to court. Because you know what happens, people who profit off of harmful behaviors, when you take away that money because you take them to court and you sue them as I have done, it's extraordinary how they will change behaviors. They have to be held accountable. And maybe this is the prosecutor in me. They have to be held accountable. These are bad behaviors. They are causing harm and death in communities. And there has been no accountability; certainly not by this administration nor, and I hate to say it so generally, by the republicans in Congress.”

It seems that Harris’ primary approach is to sue the companies responsible for climate change. I’m not against this. Presumably the money would go towards mitigation and adaptation efforts but I don’t see that as an immediate, guaranteed, or sustainable solution to any of this?

She continued and sort of clarified,

“Yes, they're going to pay money and they're going to pay fines and they're going to pay fees. And under my plan there will also be a carbon fee. And that money, a lot of it, is going to go to the communities -- and this is part of my environmental justice approach to the issue -- part of it is going to be that I'm saying that the fees have to also go to -- to empower those communities that for too long have been ignored. And I'm talking about the communities where children are going to school drinking water out of lead pipes. I'm talking about communities where they have wells as their only source of water. And those wells, because of the flooding that has taken place, have been infected with bacteria. And -- and so my plan includes putting $250 billion immediately into helping re-establish the infrastructure on water in our country.”

Similar to the way Yang treats the universal basic income as an end all be all solution I felt Harris was doing similar here. Was glad to see environmental justice mentioned, again.

Amy Klobuchar

Klobuchar started with a strong opening statement,

“It is a monumental crisis, and I think what we have to dispel is this idea that it's happening 100 years from now. It's happening right now. And it is happening, as you heard that weather report about the hurricane, which we know was a level five hurricane when it hit the Bahamas in a way that we've never seen before on those islands. We've seen the rising sea levels, we've seen that melting Greenland ice sheet… We see it economically with homeowners insurance up 50 percent in just the last few years. It's going to cost us like $500 billion every year. So we need to make that economic case.  

But in the Midwest -- and that's where we've not gotten as many votes for moving on this, what do we see? Fires. We saw those firefighters lost in Arizona. We saw raging fires in Colorado.  We saw the California video, in northern California of that dad driving his little girl over those lapping flames with their neighborhood burning behind them. And in Iowa, a woman named Fran (ph) who showed me her binoculars and she says, here look, she says this is my house. I bought it with my husband. We lived there with our four year olds. I wanted to retire in this house. I love it. I love the way the light comes in the kitchen, but I don't know if I'm ever going to sit in it again. I said well, where is the river, because the house was half submerged in water. She said well it stood here for nearly a century, this house. And I said is this the river. She says no. The river is two and half miles away. It has never come this close to our neighborhood before. That's climate change, that's the crisis that's happening right now -- and that's the case we need to make to the American people, as well as the opportunities that we're going to have for new jobs, and new technologies and take this on as a mission for our country -- just like the greatest generation won World War II and just like the Civil Rights movement, this is our challenge. 

I appreciated the emphasis on how climate change is affecting us now, particularly after Harris had focused so much on future generations. I think this is really important framing. Yes, climate change will affect future generations but it’s happening now.

“So I just want to make clear as we look at this we have to move forward together as a county. We have to find these things that unite us and see this as our mission, and right now people are seeing this climate change right in front of us and we have to seize on this moment. Because that movie, "The Day After Tomorrow," it's today -- it's happening today.”

Jake Gyllenhaal references are always appreciated.

Burnett next asked, “So when we look at the sea level changes, right, we've all seen it. It says well if things continue, right, you're going to be looking at Miami, you're going to be looking at a lot of changes in the coastline of this country -- do you think people will have to literally move inland? That that is part of the solution, that people are going to need to move?”

“Well I have been through this mitigation issue from flooding in my own state, and we have actually made sure that some of the people moved their homes. Sometimes we find a way to move their homes, to move them off of flooding areas that keep consistently flooding. Because otherwise they're paying too much money.  I still remember being in Austin, Minnesota and seeing this one house and they'd converted most to a park, they've most of the houses and they go, that's the guy -- that's the guy that wouldn't move last time. And so this is called flood mitigation. There will be some moving, I'm hopeful it won't be in the whole scale (ph) that we -- could happen if we didn't do anything about this. So if we just sit the way we are, we see what's happening. We know that 8 of the 10 metro areas in the country that's going to experience the most flooding is in Florida, the big metro. That's why my first climate change event that I did was in Tampa, because I wanted to make that point -- and the point that this isn't just about certain big cities in the country, it's really for our whole country. And so what you've got to do is start acting now, take this as a mission -- make sure you're appealing to people so they understand they can be a part of this solution and not just portray everything in a negative. Because I actually think there's some real positives that come out of this. There will be some flood mitigation and our infrastructure going to have to do, some is to reduce carbon like more transit, but some of it is also of course going to be about mitigation, and moving things and making it easier and building stronger levees.  We have to be honest about that or we're not going to be able to make it through this.” 

She gives the example of Austin, Minnesota which is a good case study in buy-out programs. She didn’t mention the number of decades Austin has been immersed in this process. Buy-outs are exceptionally complicated. They’re not the only solution but they certainly are necessary in some cases. We have to find a better way to approach this process. I do especially appreciate her push for being honest. We need more of that as we discuss the realities of these types of consequences.

She also reiterates a key point: we need to mitigate climate change and mitigate its consequences simultaneously.

“Thank you, that is a key question, because we need environmental justice in this country, right? Because when you look at it -- and you're exactly right. Even think of just what happened, people with money what do they do when a flood may be coming their way or a hurricane coming their way? It's much easier, they get in a plane, they go someplace. They put their family in the car, and they drive off to another community -- some friends or neighbors that have room in their house for them to stay in.  People who are economically disadvantaged, and people of color -- many times they're the ones left behind, and when those houses get ruined -- and you can see it in the Bahamas right now, when those houses go down, it's often the houses of those that can afford it the least.  My husband grew up in a trailer home, so I know firsthand those trailer courts and what happens when they get ruined. We certainly saw that in the fire in Paradise, right?”

 A good answer to the question of disaster disparities and environmental justice. The examples she provides here are supported by research.

Joe Biden

The first disaster question came from an audience member: “Right, hi. So my 24-year-old daughter, Jessie, and her friend, Jacob, were killed in Superstorm Sandy by falling trees. And many others were killed that night by rising waters. Since then, there have been worldwide superstorms, severe weather impacting hundreds, thousands. You know, we see an example of that tonight.  What specific steps -- and I mean specific -- would you take -- you said something before -- but what specific steps would you take in your first year regarding policies, funding, safe communities, jobs, that would help mitigate the impact of climate change in your first year? And then what would you want to have accomplished at the end of your first term, if elected?”

Well, look, first of all, what we have to do is go back and turn back all of the changes that, in fact, the president has made, from CAFE standards to moving in a direction that we, in fact, deal with providing people who get displaced opportunities to have jobs, by sending them back to school, by doing continued education. Whole range of things.  I would see to it in the -- immediately, moving toward -- you know, we are, in fact, in a position now that if, in fact, we dealt with mitigation across the board, just what we did in the last administration, and before, leading to a standard that we provide efficiency for appliances, that saves billions of gallons of gasoline -- I mean, billions of -- two point -- I think it's $2.3 billion worth of -- excuse me, $500 billion in savings and two-point-something billion metric tons of CO-2 going into the air. We should do it across the board. I think we should -- I propose we have 500,000 charging stations in the new green economy. We should own -- we should own the electric vehicle market. I think we should raise the CAFE standards, bring them back to where they were which would have saved 12 billion gallons of oil to begin with and move beyond.  I think we should be, in fact, doubling what we're doing immediately with regard to solar and wind. I would make sure that we -- and I'd go -- it goes on from there. But the bottom line is, to set in place standards that cannot be walked away from when, in fact, the next president, if someone else comes along, does what Trump tries to do.”

This answer was deeply inaccurate and inappropriate.

I am still trying to understand how the first words were not, “I am sorry for your loss”. There was a measurable difference in how Biden responded to audience members who were sharing deeply painful and personal stories compared to the other candidates. Disasters demand compassion first and foremost.

Secondly, he did not at all answer here question. She was asking for specific steps that would be taken to “mitigate the impact of climate change” she was not asking how he was going to mitigate climate change which is the answer he gave. I know having two different uses of the term mitigation (plus adaptation) being thrown around is confusing but it is also one of the most fundamental concepts in climate and disaster science.

It is frustrating that Anderson Cooper did not ask Biden a follow-up here.

“You're looking at it right now. These people right here. Look, it's a little bit like a whole lot of things that people didn't know before this guy became president, until he started to take it away. And they started to take it away, and he said, whoa, wait a minute, man, look what that's done. He's changed the CAFE standards. We're not going to meet those standards. Well, that means boom. He's done this. It means bang. Everybody knows now, knows what he has done, and it's raised the ante significantly. No one can any longer -- I remember when I introduced that bill back in 1986. They said, what the hell are you talking about, Biden? What's the crisis? Well, it wasn't -- we didn't have Superstorm Sandy at the time. We didn't have all these things that are occurring that people now know and were predicted they would occur. We weren't losing species that, in fact, we find are not going to be able to -- where they'll never return.”

As important as necessary as it is to connect climate change to disasters (as science allows) we shouldn’t do so at the expense of erasing history. Yes, storms are different but they’re not new. *waves from the Long Island Express Hurricane of 1938.

“WEIR: Thank you, Anderson. Vice President Biden, as we keep one eye on Hurricane Dorian tonight, it's safe to assume that an awful lot of folks in the Carolina low country are thinking about life and safety and probably insurance. There were 14 separate billion-dollar storms or fires last year, total of $91 billion, and it just seems logical...
BIDEN: We didn't rake enough leaves, as the president...
WEIR: Yeah. Anyway, right, but it seems reasonable to assume that at some point insurance companies are going to stop covering places that are vulnerable, even in fire regions, as you say, as well.  But if that happens, it could tank real estate values and it could gut out property values, and the tax base that so many communities depend on. So as president, how would you be honest with the American people when it comes to the dangers of this, without feeding into this kind of an economic spiral?

BIDEN: Just like I did at home. My stage is three feet above sea level, OK? Three feet above sea level on the southern part of the state, the whole Delmarva peninsula. And guess what? We know what's going to happen if we don't make significant change. And so we'll be telling people: Don't build in these places here.  

WEIR: But what about the people that are already there?  

BIDEN: The people who are already there are going to be in real trouble. They're going to be in real trouble, because you're right. Eventually what's going to happen is, you're going to have insurance companies come along and say I can't insure that, because the prospect that that is going to be blown away is overwhelming. And so we have to, you know, be in a position where when we build back, we don't build back to normal, we build back to what is necessary. And so there's a whole range of things that are going on now in terms of, you know -- anyway, I'm taking too long. Sorry.”  

The insurance piece of this question is confusing because insurance companies already do not cover flooding. It’s why we have the National Flood Insurance Program?

Biden begins entering “building back better” territory here which is a term popularized by Bill Clinton after the 2004 Indian Tsunami. It’s a good sentiment but it requires to question what is meant by better. Here Biden replaces the word “better” with “necessary”. It’s not clear to me what this means.

Bernie Sanders

A member of the audience asked what was my favorite question of the night, “I wanted to ask you about FEMA rules. FEMA rules. Are you in favor of changing FEMA rules to encourage retreat from properties that have suffered repeated catastrophic losses? And if so, how would you implement those changes in a way that's fair and equitable?”

“Well, as I understand what you're saying, we have the absurd situation where FEMA will only pay to repair a facility or a piece of infrastructure where it was before it was destroyed. That's pretty stupid. I mean, if it was destroyed once and you rebuild it, it's destroyed twice, it doesn't make a lot of sense to put it there again. So the answer is, absolutely. Which raises even the broader question of how we're going to protect communities -- look, we're not going to turn this thing around tomorrow. I worry very much -- I was just in South Carolina last week. There are scientists who think that parts of Charleston, South Carolina, parts of Miami will be underwater. What do we do to protect those communities? What do we do to protect poor people and people of color, by the way, who are often the hardest hit by environmental degradation and the impact of climate change? And we have substantial sums of money to do that, as well.

The first part is referring to FEMA’s approach of rebuilding structures back to what they were pre-disaster without accounting for all that “better” politicians like to promise. I agree this needs to change to allow for increased prioritization and funding of mitigation during recovery.

It looks like Sander’s is proposing a two strikes rule. My first question is, “in what timeframe?”

It would also be appropriate and helpful to actually answer the questions proposed towards the end.

Cooper followed up: “So would people in coastal communities, have a house right on the beach, would they have to move?”  

SANDERS: Well, I don't think it makes a lot of sense to rebuild that house so that it is, you know, knocked down again in the next storm. And what you are...

COOPER: So how do you make that happen as president?  

SANDERS: Well, all of -- well, you do your best through carrots and sticks at the federal level. But, you know, if people want to rebuild in an area which will be devastated by the next storm, they're certainly not going to get any federal assistance from my administration to do that.”

This answer demonstrates nearly no understanding of the disaster recovery process for individuals and households. First, most aren’t getting much federal assistance anyway. I’m also going to need “carrots and sticks” to be replaced with actual policies ideas. Eliminating eligibility in the individual assistance program? Increasing buy-out funds? Leveraging flood insurance? What about the people who can’t afford to move? This approach to recovery, to mitigation, is deeply harmful. Sure, a more permanent solution is needed to manage repetitive flood properties but there’s a lot we can do before we just uproot people. Moving, when a family doesn’t really want to, should be a last resort. Instead it’s being treated by Sanders and others as the immediate solution. The destruction to people’s social networks and community identity alone should give us pause. Again, his issue requires both compassion and nuance.

Elizabeth Warren

Really excellent question from the audience, “I'm from the Island of Jean Charles, Biloxi, Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe. We've been dubbed as many -- by as the first American climate refugees. We had a front-row seat to climate change for the past 20 years. I had to move my home from my island home when I was little due to mold-induced asthma and from repeat flooding. So my question to you is, if president, what changes would you make to support communities like mine who face community- wide displacement and culture erasure?”

Yeah. So let me start by saying how very sorry I am. It's got to be heart to watch your homelands disappear like this and to know that you've done everything you can do, but that the forces bigger than you have taken over. And so I see it this way. Part one is that everything we spend on climate has to be about reducing our carbon footprint. It has to be about justice, as well, though, for people who have been displaced, for workers who have been displaced, for people in communities of color who have for generations now been the ones where the toxic dumps got sited next to their homes. Their children breathe the nasty particulates that brought on asthma, their seniors died earlier. And so part of this change is not only about reducing climate footprint, about reducing our pollution of this Earth, but it's about trying to help those who've been injured from all that's happened. So part of what I have reference to in the plan -- it's not all the way stretched out yet, and so I'm still working on this -- and I want to work on this with the communities that are affected -- is making sure that this money goes down to the community level, that it doesn't just all happen in two or three places around the country that can make the most noise, that are the biggest, that it doesn't go, I'll be blunt, to governors. It goes all the way down to the communities that are affected. And if I can, I just want to add one more piece. You know, when I think about climate, it is the existential threat. It is the one that threatens all life on this planet, that every day we're losing species. It's changing. The oceans are getting more acidic. So when I first started thinking about how to describe what I will fight for when I run for president, I decided I wasn't going to do one climate plan. I decided I was going to try to look at climate in every part of the plans I'm working on. So that means I've got a lot of places where this comes in, because that's how I see it. It's not going to be a one and done that's all confined. It's that it hits in different places. So, for example, on the policies about our relationship, our federal government's relationship with our native tribes, it's about respecting the tribe's ability to take care of their own land, to be good stewards of the land. And a commitment as president that I will not approve any plans for the use of federal lands that are near tribal lands that can affect what happens on tribal lands or sacred lands that are sacred to our Native American brothers and sisters, that I will not do that without the prior informed consent of the neighboring tribes. I think that's how we help tribes be the stewards of the land that they have been for generations and I know they will be for generations to come.

(Note the compassion in Warrens answer.)

There is consensus among candidates that justice needs to be involved but I think Warren’s ability to connect multiple forms of justice is unique among them. I feel strongly the only path forward is by centering justice — in its many, related forms. Warren brings up Justice for disaster survivors, environmental justice, and worker justice all in one sentence.

I’m very interested to hear more about skipping over governors. At a time when many are calling for the increased involvement of states in emergency management, Warren seems to suggest limiting their involvement further. Major difference with rippling implications.

An important follow-up,

“So part of what I have reference to in the plan -- it's not all the way stretched out yet, and so I'm still working on this -- and I want to work on this with the communities that are affected -- is making sure that this money goes down to the community level, that it doesn't just all happen in two or three places around the country that can make the most noise, that are the biggest, that it doesn't go, I'll be blunt, to governors. It goes all the way down to the communities that are affected.”

Warren acknowledges she’s still working on an adaptation plan — that will provide significant clarification and it’s wild that every candidate doesn’t have one.

It’s good to see the continued centering of local communities. Emergency management starts and ends local and should be driven by local leadership and knowledge as much as possible.

Next, Weir asked, “You've been to Port Arthur. Then you know what it looks like. This is the Motiva oil refinery. It is the biggest in the world -- or at least in North America. It is in Port Arthur, but it's owned by a Saudi Arabian company that made more profit, twice as much profit as Apple Computers last year. Although right next door, I met a family in a $60,000 house that can't afford to fix the mold from Harvey. Even though they understand the problems, they would tell you, please don't shut them down because I will die of starvation before I die of pollution. They're worried about jobs. And so what do you tell the pipefitters and cafeteria workers in Port Arthur what will happen to them if these places go dark?”

“So, I would say two things to them. The first one is, that's not the only job in Port Arthur over the next 20 years. I've seen Port Arthur. Port Arthur is going to need a lot of infrastructure rebuilding and strengthening. It's going to need a lot of help right on the water. Those are good jobs. Those are union jobs. Those are skilled jobs. We have a lot of work to do, and I hope the workers in Port Arthur will be a big part of that. That's part one. But part two is, who's making the real money off Port Arthur and those workers? Who's making that money? It's the investors, it's the Saudis who own this company. How is it in a democracy that we could have a handful of corporations that year after year keep dragging in bigger and bigger profits while the oceans continue to rise, while your home disappears, while your children have asthma, while people die? That's not right.  And the reason it is happening is Washington. Washington could have put a stop to this decades ago. But they didn't. Washington is corrupt. It is taking money from the fossil fuel industry, from the big polluters, and it's doing exactly what they want, which is mostly nothing.  And if we don't call that out and attack it head on, understand, in the next few years, there will be bills that will be called climate bills. They'll have fabulous names. All the air has just been cleaned up, water is now pure and wonderful, that will be the name of the bill, comma, brought to you by Exxon. Read the fine print on what that bill says. So the way I see this is we have to attack the corruption head on, because until we attack that corruption head on, so long as those guys continue to call the shots, then we're not going to be able to make the changes that we must make.”  

This answer bring up something that other candidates seemed to miss in their rush to have everyone move. Many people cannot move. They are tied to their community and their jobs. They’re struggling through recovery including dealing with rippling health impacts. Furthermore, the worst of this cycle is in communities that lack resources and political power.

Pete Buttigieg

Yet another excellent question from the audience. (It’s almost like if you hand the mic over to disaster survivors, scientists, and activists we can actually have informed coversations.)

“Hi. Good evening. Mayor Buttigieg, for decades, working- class communities and communities of color have been the first to be hit by pollution and the last to rebuild after climate disaster. After Hurricane Katrina, two-thirds of people who lost their jobs were women. And black Americans are three times more likely to die from pollution. How would you use the Green New Deal to bring Americans together and address racial, gender, and socioeconomic disparities?

“This is such an important example of the moral stakes of dealing with climate. This is not only a question of generational justice. It is a question of social, racial, and gender justice. And as you cited in your questions, communities of color and communities that have already been disadvantaged by prejudice and hatred in this country are being made even worse off by what's happening with climate.  We've seen it in South Bend. Some of those most impacted by some of the historic flooding that we've seen were those who were economically least able to deal with it. We're seeing far more black kids needing to be treated for asthma than white kids. That's not a coincidence. That's a consequence of things like economic disempowerment and because a lot of folks were red-lined intentionally into neighborhoods that are closer to sources of pollution. And so it's one of the reasons why our Douglass plan for dealing with systemic racism in the country looks at how everything from economic empowerment to housing comes into play.  We're also proposing health equity zones. And this has a strong overlap with environment, because while some of the reasons that, for example, black patients are at a disadvantage with public health outcomes has to do with what happens when they go into a doctor's office or a hospital. A lot of it's what happens in your own home, in your own environment, because of these environmental factors. So I'm proposing that we fund communities, developing community solutions toward health equity, including dealing with issues that are exacerbated by climate or caused by environmental problems, without saying that we're going to prescribe it all from Washington, but putting real dollars from Washington behind those community plans to deliver health equity and justice, with environmental issues being one of the main drivers of both the problem and potentially solution.”

On the mark answer linking those multiple types of justice (as Warren did) and explaining the interconnectedness of race, gender, class, and vulnerability.

Beto O’Rourke

Question from the audience, “An important environmental justice concern is extreme heat which kills more residents each year than storm surge. So what would you do to address this issue through building codes, or policies that really begin to address the escalating energy costs and the lack of air conditioning? And the lack of the ability to pay for air conditioning by vulnerable populations? Over 31 percent over - - over 31 million households in this country are energy insecure.”

Peggy, thanks for the work that you're doing. Thank you for asking the question and thank you for pointing out a very real and present crisis that we have in this country right now and across much of the world. We talked about the ability to spend on helping those communities on the front lines of climate change right now through the revenues from cap and trade system. So that means that those communities, very often lower income, and right now race ethnicity is the best predictor to your - - to your proximity to a polluter are first in line to get the help that they need. That they deserve and that they've missed for generations. This is a personal issue for me. El Paso, Texas is the second fastest, warming city in the United States of America today. We've had more than 14 days over 100 degrees over the month of August which broke the record for as long as we've been studying records in our - - in our community. And I'll tell you something Peggy and Don, my son Henry who's eight years old, when I was talking to him the other night. He asked me, Dad if you win and you become president we get to live in El Paso right? And I said, no, if - - if we win the way this works we would live in Washington, D.C. But he knew because I had told him about the warming that we face that our community will be uninhabitable, not sustain human life along this current trajectory unless something dramatically and fundamentally changes. So the people of El Paso and the desert Southwest and the lower 9th Ward in New Orleans and Charleston, South Carolina and Miami, Florida, really the people of this country are counting on all of us right now to stand up and be counted and do the right thing. So we will make those investments but the most important thing is to arrest the rate of climate change on this planet to ensure that we do not warm a degree and a half Celsius over those pre-industrial revolutions - - revolution levels. That's my number one priority and that's why climate was the first plan I released as a candidate for the presidency. Thanks for asking the question.”

This answer is fine but, again, there’s not immediate solutions or suggestions for management.

Next a question from a Maria survivor, “Yes. We all know about the recent events that made Puerto Rico to be in the international media. Especially about the wrong handling of funds and other types of assistance that were sent after the hurricane hit. This made us victims, very angry, feel betrayed and heartbroken. What will your plan be if another natural event happens to make sure that victims get the necessary assistance on time and in a fair way?”

It makes me angry as well. I hope it makes everybody angry the way that we've treated the people of Puerto Rico, our fellow Americans who were left in harms way without the necessary investment in the infrastructure to mitigate the storms that we knew were going to hit them. There are only more severe and more frequent and more devastating, thanks to our excesses, our emissions, our inaction in the face of climate change. And to add insult to injury, President Trump is taking money away from FEMA to send to the U.S.-Mexico border. One of the safest places in America today to try to build a wall or put more kids in cages or - - or try to militarize a problem that we do not have in this country right now. And that's at the expense of the people in South Carolina and Florida, North Carolina and Puerto Rico.

So I want to make sure that we fully fund those disaster response agencies. I want to make sure that we fully fund pre-disaster mitigation grants because we know the people of Puerto Rico are going to see more storms like the ones that we've seen in the past only they're going to be much larger and - - and much deadlier. And so we need to invest ahead of time, not afterwards and then the last thing. We need to make sure for the people of Puerto Rico can determine their future. Now whether that is independence, whether they want to remain a territory or whether that is statehood with two U.S. senators who can go to town for them in the U.S. Congress to bring down the resources that they need. We need to support the people of Puerto Rico.”

Again, disaster mitigation is fundamentally important but we also have to recognize that no matter how much we mitigate disasters will still happen and we need to be ready to get folks through the recovery effectively, efficiently, and justly… which is the question being asked. This doesn’t answer it.

That said, there are some interesting things mentioned in passing particularly related to funding. He says he will “fully fund disaster response agencies”. The plural leads me to believe he includes state and local emergency management agencies, not just FEMA? What does “fully funded” mean? How will you do that?

Similarly he stated, “fully fund pre-disaster mitigation grants”. Presumably he is referring to FEMA’s pre-Disaster Mitigation Grant Program but I’m not sure what he means by “fully fund”. Also, all of this money is allocated by Congress so how is he getting them onboard this seemingly expensive endeavor?

There was then a somewhat strange exchange in which Don Lemon seemed to push him to say that people who own flooded properties in Houston specifically need to move. This is particularly controversial for O’Rourke.

“LEMON: Congressman, as you know, Texas has been hit hard by climate disasters recently and you know Harvey was particularly damaging to Houston, Texas. Yet it has been reported that many people are rebuilding, moving right back into homes in the exact locations that are known to flood now, badly now or in the future. The question is, parts of Houston or Texas, are there parts that people should simply not live in so that - - because they're too risky now? 

O'ROURKE: We should help people move when they need to move, when they've repaired their homes not once, not twice but three times just in the last five years because Houston, Texas, the example you gave has witnessed three 500 year storms in five years. They should good for 1,500 years but they're not because if we listen to the scientists and I do. We know that those storms are going to become ever more frequent. We were in the Cashmere Gardens neighborhood with their neighborhood president Keith Downey (ph) and he was showing us some of these homes a year after Harvey hit that had still not been rebuilt. On every other lamppost or telephone pole, there was a yellow sign that said sell your home for cash and - - and people were. They'd - - they'd worked a lifetime to build up the equity in those homes but they could no longer afford to rebuild them and they were going to lose them for pennies on the dollar. This is an issue of environmental justice that - - that Peggy was talking about. So lets as Americans invest in the people of Houston and the Southeast of America and every community that's on the front lines of climate change, to rebuild where we can and to move where we must. It's not an inexpensive proposition but what is far more expensive is to continue to pay to rebuild, to measure the cost of climate change if we do not need it and not the billions but the trillions of dollars going forward. So let's invest now so we can pay less now than we would have to be 


LEMON: Are there parts of Houston and - - and parts of Texas where people simply should not live because it's too risky? 

O'ROURKE: I - - I think there are - - are neighborhoods that have repeatedly flooded. People who would move out of those neighborhoods, if they could, they are sick and tired of being flooded and rebuilding but they cannot afford to do that. And that's why under my administration, we are going to invest the resources that will allow people to move to safer ground, rebuild their homes, rebuild their businesses and rebuild their lives.”

Cory Booker

Big fan of the guy who asked this question because he used the term “unnatural disasters”.

“Thank you Mr. Booker. Registered nurses are - - are furious (ph) advocates for our - - our community and the climate crisis is something of particular interest to all of us. When Super Storm Sandy hit our city, we experienced something none of us were prepared for, along with many, many others I lost my home. Our new reality is that these storms are getting more frequent and more devastating. What is your administration planning on doing to make sure that as a nation, we are as prepared as we can be for these unnatural disasters?”

So, first of all, I'm sorry for your loss. And I was the mayor of the city of Newark at that time and not only did I have my neighbors and others lose their homes, but we lost lives in the city of Newark, and I know you did here in New York City as well. These are nightmares that were still recovering from in New Jersey, still trying to put a lot of the pieces back together. And vulnerable communities, often urban communities, these are folks, they see the most kind of -- not only devastation, but life dislocation. And so having been through that experience, power for -- no power for days, senior citizens whose life depends upon having electricity to pump oxygen into their lungs, these are crises that we have to be prepared for and doing the things necessary to make sure that they're not coming with this kind of fierce increasing nature that they are right now. So, so much of what I'm going to do is going to be about climate resiliency as well. Making the kind of investments we need in making sure that communities are not as susceptible to flooding, whether that's the flooding in the Mississippi or sea level rise that's affecting cities like Atlantic City. It means making sure that we're investing in the kind of emergency preparedness and not have the kind of backwards reality that I see in Washington where every time there's a natural disaster, you have to work through Washington, D.C., politics just to get the resources a community needs to recover. Enough of that. I will set up permanent funds to make sure that politicians aren't making this decision. That we're making it with our heart. We're Americans, we take care of our own.”

The new part Booker added here is that politics in Washington are the source of slow recoveries. This is really complicated and it’s certainly one factor. Pretty significant changes — like the existences of presidential disaster declarations — would need to be changed for recovery to not be dictated by politicians. I’m not even sure that’s possible?

On a second review I wonder if he’s talking about the major disasters that currently require supplemental funding from Congress? So perhaps he’s simply proposing increasing FEMA’s annual budget to be able to cover the full costs of response/recovery for any and all declarations? There’s some merit here but I don’t see Congress going for it.

(CNN is deeply fascinated by this issue of people needing to move which is very weird to me. There’s a million other mitigation approaches that are going unexplored.) Lemon then asks, “Senator, I want to ask you a similar question that I asked the former congressman earlier. You know sea levels are rising because of climate change. Do you think there's some coastal communities, perhaps even in your home state of New Jersey, where people should -- they need to move inland until -- because this is going to get worse -- until things get better?”

“So a lot of people have this misperception that we're not already seeing climate refugees. I was down in Louisiana meeting with proud Native American community who is already having to move because -- it's not for flooding. It's that the sea level is rising above now their low-lying communities, ancestral communities. And so we have to make really tough decisions. I think we have to invest in resiliency to protect Miami, to protect Atlantic City and a lot of other cities. But we have to make tough choices as well. We have to begin to create the right kind of incentives in a community that have building and investment going on in places that are on higher ground. But resiliency, resiliency, resiliency. I cannot -- we cannot be a anymore that, to use this metaphor, that puts our servers in the basement. We have to prepare for what is coming. Even if we do solve this crisis, we're going to see weather events like we've seen for the last five years from the fires to the floods to the storms. We have to be prepared.”

Another candidate using Isle de Jean Charles as an example. Someone should ask Booker to define resilience. He used it far more than any other candidate.

**I copied these quotes from CNN’s website so if there’s an error you can send them an angry email, not me.