Natural Disasters

Pew's Cuttino talks government response, coordination to extreme weather events

How are more frequent and complex extreme weather events affecting national preparedness and the government's ability to successfully respond? During today's OnPoint, Phyllis Cuttino, director of the Pew Project on National Security, Energy and Climate, discusses existing challenges to communication and coordination between federal and state government agencies in the response to natural disasters.


Monica Trauzzi: Hello and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. With me today is Phyllis Cuttino, director of the Pew Project on National Security, Energy and Climate. Phyllis, it's great to have you back on the show.

Phyllis Cuttino: Thanks for allowing me to come back. It's always a pleasure.

Monica Trauzzi: Thank you. With extreme weather and climate events increasing in recent decades, government preparedness and response is viewed as a critical component. How are these more frequent and complex events affecting national preparedness and how the U.S. responds to natural disasters?

Phyllis Cuttino: Well, it's interesting. We had an event today where we hosted the deputy administrator for FEMA, the major general of the South Carolina National Guard, as well as the chief scientist for NOAA. And what's clear is there's more coordination going on than there has been before, from early warning from NOAA with better forecasting than they've seen in the past, to really better coordination on the ground, particularly with the National Guard. And the guard was quite interesting today because they were talking about how they've been planning for these events. So they not only respond to these events, but then they go back and they learn from them so that they're better prepared for the next event. So today Gen. Livingston was talking about how his experience in Hugo really helped him when it came to responding to this 1,000-year flood event that was a result of Hurricane Joaquin just last October.

Monica Trauzzi: But what are the current challenges that exist in terms of communication and coordination between agencies?

Phyllis Cuttino: Well, FEMA was saying, for instance, that they really can't get on the ground until 72 hours after an event, and so that's why it's so critical that the guard is actually in place, because they can be in place after an event actually happens. So I think that's really good news. And then I think the coordination of understanding what each state needs after a natural disaster, kind of what are the unique things that has happened to them -- are bridges out? Have there been failures with roads? Are they having to rescue people from their homes? So, you know, each natural disaster is really different and a learning experience. But what's clear is we're having more natural disasters, and certainly the chief scientist from NOAA today, Dr. Spinrad, was talking about the trajectory for more extreme heat, more tornadoes, more flood events. The better news might be less frequent hurricanes but more intense hurricanes. And, you know, trying to develop the environmental intelligence that will lead us to respond better to those events.

Monica Trauzzi: So how important are governors and state agencies then in coordinating the response and then allowing the federal government to come in and do their work?

Phyllis Cuttino: Right -- critical, critical. It's clear that early planning by governors, reaching out, involving communities so that everyone understands their role when it comes to responding is really critical. And, you know, I think about the historic snowstorm we just had here in this area where you had more than 1,300 guardsmen between Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia called up, that had to serve, leaving their families at home, trying to help us -- either dig out snowplows that were stuck or help utility trucks or save people, whatever it was.

Monica Trauzzi: A big question is how to resource the level of preparedness that's required. Is it just a question of financing?

Phyllis Cuttino: Well, I think a lot of it is financing because -- you know, there are two aspects. There's response and recovery, but there's also what investments you make to mitigate risk in the future, because for every dollar that you invest now, you save $4 in the future. So it's really critical that policymakers not only find ways to respond to natural disasters, as we've seen with Sandy or Katrina or others, but also really to prepare for the future. And those are dollars that are harder to come by because they've just got to be appropriated. In some cases, you know, paying people to move from their homes if they're in special hazard flood zones and have been flooded again and again and again -- you know, these are things you have to pay for somehow.

Monica Trauzzi: Right. And so is FEMA at this point adequately funded to react and prepare for extreme weather events?

Phyllis Cuttino: Well, it's really -- you know, disaster declarations come down from the president, and they don't really know how much each disaster is going to be. Some of them are obviously more costly than others. If you look at just the national flood insurance programs, that's just helping people who have been flooded in their homes, that's $24 billion in debt. So clearly there's -- with the more frequency of these events and them becoming larger and more catastrophic events, and combine that with these events are happening a lot of times in areas that are heavily populated -- there are more and more people who, for instance, are living along rivers or coasts and those are frequently where these events happen. So between those two impacts, more population and more frequent events, we're just seeing the price tag for all of these events tick up.

Monica Trauzzi: PricewaterhouseCoopers recently surveyed 1,400 CEOs from around the world on what they view as the biggest threats to business, and only 50 percent said climate change and environmental damage is a threat to business. What is the role for business in both the preparedness and response to extreme weather events and how that sort of coordinates and relates to what governments are doing?

Phyllis Cuttino: Well, it's interesting here in the United States. One-third of our gross domestic product comes from industries that are weather or climate impacted. So I think business has a big role to play, whether or not it's leading in terms of mitigation efforts or reinvesting in communities or really showing -- you know, joining with the community to respond. But I definitely think that, you know, America's CEOs and CEOs around the world have something to say about how these natural disasters -- sea-level rise, climatic impacts -- are really affecting the economy.

Monica Trauzzi: All right, we'll end it right there. Thank you. Nice to see you -- thanks for coming on the show.

Phyllis Cuttino: Thanks, Monica. It was good to be here.

Monica Trauzzi: And thanks for watching. We'll see you back here tomorrow.

[End of Audio]



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