Natural disasters will be a priority for new governors
Governors have a range of priorities they want to tackle in the coming year, from tax changes to education. Yet it’s a topic that receives less attention on the campaign trail and in their speeches that could determine their success — natural disasters.
In the last two years alone, storms and natural disasters have killed scores of people, damaged or destroyed tens of thousands of homes and cost tens of billions of dollars.
Wildfires in the West and hurricanes in the South have been especially destructive, and scientists say climate change is making this more common. As the severity escalates, governors are finding they have to make disaster planning a priority or risk the consequences of inaction defining their terms and enraging voters.
Handling disasters and emergencies was a prime topic last week when the National Governors Association held a three-day seminar in Colorado that most of the nation’s 19 governors-elect attended.
“As California’s wildfires, a spate of hurricanes, and unfortunate acts of mass violence have demonstrated, such events can occur at any time,” Scott Pattison, the nonpartisan association’s chief executive, said in a statement, “including a governor’s first day in office.”
For many Democratic governors especially, the main concern is how climate change appears to be worsening the effects of natural disasters.
In California, half of the 10 most destructive wildfires in state history have occurred since 2017, and the costliest have been in each of the past three years, according to the state firefighting agency. The state has spent $500 million from its emergency firefighting fund just since July 1, putting this wildfire season on pace to be among the costliest yet.
The state is dealing with its most destructive wildfire ever, a Northern California blaze that leveled a town of 27,000 this month, killed at least 80 people and left thousands homeless. That blaze, and another that roared through Malibu at the same time and left at least three dead, are the latest in a string of catastrophic wildfires that have put the state in what seems like a perpetual state of emergency.
Outgoing Gov. Jerry Brown has called California’s mega fires “the new abnormal” as climate change turns the state warmer and drier.
The escalating destruction prompted state lawmakers to pass a series of wildfire-related bills this year. Among other provisions, they provide millions of dollars to cut trees and brush, make it easier for property owners to clear their land and require the state’s utilities to step up their fire-prevention efforts.
During his campaign, incoming Gov. Gavin Newsom said wildfire planning would be a priority for his administration and outlined a number of steps he wants to take. Among them is a more aggressive approach to clearing trees and brush, particularly the state’s millions of dead trees.
“I’d rather see our National Guard working on those kinds of emergencies than being on the border,” Newsom told the nonprofit news organization CALmatters over the summer.
He also proposed deploying a network of infrared cameras to detect wildfires early, improving the emergency alert system and boosting funding for fire departments throughout the state.
A spokesman, Nathan Click, said Newsom is putting together a comprehensive wildfire strategy as he prepares to take office in early January. But the governor-elect also has been clear that the long-term goal must be reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
California’s fire season has been especially severe, yet other Western states also have experienced ever-intensifying wildland blazes in recent years.
In Colorado, the two most destructive wildfires in state history erupted within the last six years, killed a total of four people and destroyed more than 850 homes combined. Both are believed to be caused by humans, leading Democrat Jared Polis, Colorado’s governor-elect, to call for a public education campaign to reduce the possibility of manmade wildfires.
Florida has been hit with two deadly and destructive hurricanes in roughly a year’s time. Hurricanes Irma last year and Michael in October caused tens of billions of dollars in damage.
President Donald Trump talks with Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom, left, as California Gov. Jerry Brown walks at right during a visit to a neighborhood destroyed by the Camp Fire in Paradise, Calif., on Nov. 17.