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Links Between Climate Change, Disasters Examined in the House

A top FEMA administrator was scheduled to speak before the House Subcommittee but didn't show up. FEMA gave two different reasons on two different days, according to subcommittee chairman, U.S. Rep. Harley Rouda.

by Wes Wolfe, The Brunswick News, Ga. / June 27, 2019

(TNS) — There’s reasonable evidence to believe actions by human beings are causing degradation of forces that would otherwise weaken hurricanes approaching the Atlantic Coast, resulting in storms that move slower and dump more rain — a clear threat to communities on the coast and the coastal plains.

That’s according to a June 7 story in Forbes penned by a former president of the American Meteorological Society, Marshall Shepherd, who is also director of the University of Georgia’s Atmospheric Sciences Program.

With such pressing matters at hand, and with an eye to the hurricanes of 2017, a subcommittee of the U.S. House Oversight and Reform Committee met Tuesday afternoon to address the connections between natural disasters and climate change.

Scheduled to speak before the committee was one of the top administrators at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but he did not show after — according to the subcommittee chairman, U.S. Rep. Harley Rouda, D-Calif. — FEMA gave two different reasons two different days.

“This subcommittee planned to have the acting deputy administrator for FEMA, Dr. Daniel Kaniewski, testifying here today,” Rouda said. “This past Friday at 7 p.m., FEMA informed us that they were uncomfortable with the structure of the witness panel, and thus would not be able to make it to the hearing.

“When subcommittee staff contacted FEMA on Monday morning to try and work out a solution, we were then informed the doctor was unable to testify due to medical reasons. We extend our sympathies to the doctor and wish him a speedy recovery.”

Rouda recounted the significant list of effects wrought by hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria in 2017, causing massive power outages and devastation across the Caribbean, East Coast and Texas. He also noted how FEMA, in March 2018, removed references to climate change from its four-year strategic plan.

“This decision is simply baffling,” Rouda said. “If we all know climate change is happening, surely it should factor into long-term strategic planning at our nation’s largest and most powerful disaster response agency.”

Among those testifying were Stephen Costello, city of Houston’s chief recovery officer; Christopher Currie, director of emergency management for the Government Accountability Office; Judith Curry, president of the Climate Forecast Applications Network; Mark Ghilarducci, director of the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services; Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State; Omar Marrero, executive director of Puerto Rico’s Central Office of Recovery and Reconstruction; and James Lee Witt, former FEMA director.

U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., asked Witt what he thought of FEMA removing climate change consideration from their strategic planning.

“I think climate change is a big part of what we’re seeing today,” Witt said. “Last month, the month of May, we had 500 tornados — a year ago, May, it was 240. We just had a historic river flood on the Arkansas River. It was the biggest flood since 1945, 16-18 feet higher than when it crested in 1945. We see, at my farm, we got six inches of rain in two hours, which has never happened. We have seen 10-20 inches of rain in Iowa and Oklahoma and the Midwest, and it’s causing an extreme amount of flooding.

“We’re facing sea level rising — everything from California to the East Coast. That is part of climate change. Our ocean is warming. We’re having more hurricanes because the ocean is warming, and they’re much stronger and much more devastating.”

He added that he doesn’t think FEMA ignoring climate change affects disaster response, but it places an impediment to the agency in figuring out how to mitigate those effects as part of its long-term planning.

The subcommittee’s ranking member, U.S. Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., said people need to calm down a little from pointing to climate change after severe weather.

“I think it’s important to note, it seems like every major weather event in recent years is followed almost immediately by claims on cable news channels and social media that its occurrence is directly linked to climate change,” Comer said. “This overheated rhetoric can serve as a distraction from focusing on the proper role of the federal response to these disasters, which is why this hearing is convened.

“It’s clear from recent natural disasters that many parts of the country are very vulnerable to weather extremes. It’s my hope that efforts to spur continued improvements in weather forecasting will lead to an ability for communities to better prepare. Still, natural disasters have been and will continue to be a reality of the world that we live in.”

He asked Curry what her reaction was to the statement, released by Democrats on the subcommittee, that argued climate change is leading to a crop of strong hurricanes.

“With regard to the doubling of the number of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes, I was actually a co-author on that paper in 2005, by Webster, et. al. — since that time, serious issues have been raised regarding the quality of the data and the earlier part of the record, particularly prior to 1988,” Curry said. “So, most scientists are disregarding that earlier data. The big jump really occurred between the 1970s and 1990s, so if you throw out the earlier data, you no longer have much of a jump.

“A recent article by (Phil) Klotzbach and (Chris) Landsea updated that with 10 more years of data, and they found a very small increase in the percent of Category 4 and 5 — if you add 2015 and ’16, which their study didn’t include, the numbers bump up because a very big El Niño year really juices the Pacific hurricanes, which are more than half.”

She said, basically, scientists are hampered because the data record isn’t long enough.

Responding later in the hearing to a different question, Mann said there is a data record to be found.

“With regard to hurricanes, I actually co-authored an article in the journal Nature about 10 years ago, where we used geological information from what are known as deposits, sedimentary deposits, overwash deposits, left behind by ancient hurricanes,” Mann said. “So, we can actually reconstruct the history of ancient landfalling hurricanes along the U.S. East Coast, along the Caribbean. And so, we have this rich archive of information that tells us, in fact, the increase in intensity that we’re seeing today does appear to be without precedent as far back as we can go.”

The hearing, which was still in session as of press time, can be found at youtube.com/watch?v=ZJeCuc5JkJ8.

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©2019 The Brunswick News (Brunswick, Ga.)

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