The head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency publicly linked climate change to intensifying storms during congressional testimony Friday that marked a departure from his previous refusal to take a position.
"I believe the climate has changed," FEMA Administrator Peter Gaynor told Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) when she asked whether he believes in climate change. "And I'll just use hurricanes. You can look back at the history of hurricanes over the last 75 years or more — more frequent, more costly, more damage. So, the climate has changed."
Gaynor's comment about hurricanes and climate echoes broad scientific consensus and differs from his testimony at a Senate hearing in November when he said hurricanes are intensifying but would not answer questions about the cause.
Gaynor's surprising remark came at the end of a hearing in which he approvingly quoted Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert and a frequent target of President Trump's criticism, and urged people to wear a mask and avoid crowded restaurants and bars.
Gaynor, whom Trump appointed, also warned that the continuing COVID-19 pandemic could impede communities as they try to recover from hurricanes and other natural disasters this year.
"COVID-19 may slow down state, territorial and tribal abilities to conduct damage assessments for disasters such as flooding, severe storms and hurricanes," Gaynor said.
Assessing damage to public and private property is the key first step toward getting FEMA to approve federal disaster aid.
At the same time, disasters could impede the ability of officials to collect information about COVID-19 infections — making it harder for them to share "critical data" that is needed to fight the pandemic.
"There is a potential for a compounded effect that could result in a larger emergency than each disaster would be on its own," Gaynor told members of the House Oversight and Reform Committee during a live hearing in Washington.
Gaynor testified with candor at a hearing on FEMA's preparedness to deal with natural disasters during the pandemic. The agency, which Trump assigned to lead the federal response to COVID-19, is in a potentially precarious position with 2,220 employees — about 16% of its emergency response workforce — assigned to the pandemic entering the peak of hurricane season.
FEMA has said it would try to minimize sending relief workers to pandemic hot spots that are hit by a natural disaster and would use remote technology to perform tasks such as analyzing damaged property to determine if federal aid is warranted.
FEMA and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have urged communities to take precautions to keep people socially distanced in emergency evacuation shelters.
On Friday, Gaynor said evacuations during the pandemic would "require the widespread availability of noncongregate sheltering so that social distancing can be observed wherever possible."
Noncongregate shelters include hotel rooms and dormitories that keep evacuees separate from each other but which are far more expensive than congregate shelters such as convention centers and schools.
Emergency shelters "risk becoming infection hot spots," particularly for low-income people who cannot afford to evacuate to a hotel, said Rep. Harley Rouda (D-Calif.).
These realities were underscored over the weekend when Hurricane Hanna — later downgraded to a tropical storm — hit the Texas Gulf Coast.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) said Saturday that some people in need of shelter would be given hotel rooms to keep them apart from others.
In addition, a community building known as the "Dome" in the border town of Mercedes was set aside for evacuees who had tested positive for COVID-19 or were exposed to the virus.
Gaynor's comment Friday about climate was notable because it differed from his response to Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) at a Senate hearing in November when Carper asked Gaynor several times what was causing storms to become more intense and more frequent.
"What do you think is going on?" Carper asked.
"I don't know, sir," Gaynor replied.
"That's not a very good answer," Carper said.
At the House hearing Friday, Gaynor's answer acknowledging the role of climate pleased Speier, who replied, "Precisely, precisely," when Gaynor finished.
But Speier then asked Gaynor why FEMA's latest National Preparedness Report says nothing about climate change. The 2019 report is the eighth annual summary of U.S. vulnerability to threats such as disasters and terrorism but the first to say nothing about climate change (Climatewire, Jan. 7).
"It would make sense, would it not, to have climate change as something that you would include in your strategic planning, possibly to improve your ability to assist when these calamities occur?" Speier said.
Gaynor said the report doesn't mention any specific hazards and is "more of a thought piece about what was important to the nation."
When Speier asked if FEMA is training firefighters in coronavirus containment techniques, Gaynor cited CDC guidance of things "everyone needs to do whether you're a front-line firefighter or just at home watching TV."
"Wear a mask. If everyone did that, we would continue to flatten the curve," Gaynor said before listing other activities such as keeping hands clean, social distancing, and avoiding crowded bars and restaurants.
"If we can do those four basic things, every American — because this is an all-of-America response — can work toward beating COVID-19 as fast as we can," Gaynor added. "And I got those four from Dr. Fauci, so I'm proud to quote him on that."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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