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Oregon Democrat says FEMA also needs to help communities plan for coming onslaught of climate disasters.

U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer says it's time for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to include among its covered disasters heat waves and severe freezes — such as those that gripped the Willamette Valley last year — and to help communities plan for the onslaught of floods and wildfires that global climate change will intensify.

Blumenauer also said governments have a duty to help mitigate disasters in advance in poorer communities, which often suffer the brunt of their effects.

The veteran Democrat from Portland spoke in an interview Thursday, Jan. 13, as he introduced the first bill in a series of actions he called for two months ago, after he returned from a global climate-change conference in Scotland.

He referred to both the wintry siege that affected the Willamette Valley 11 months ago and the four-day heat wave in June, when 100-degree-plus temperatures resulted in hundreds of deaths in Portland and elsewhere in the Northwest. The first event was covered under a federal disaster declaration; the second was not.

"What we saw this past year is quite clearly a preview of coming attractions — and it revealed the fact that FEMA was simply not up to this task," he said. "We have not had FEMA's definition of a disaster include heat waves or freezes. This legislation would give FEMA the authority to adjust its efforts."

In addition to the 2021 wintry siege in the Willamette Valley, disasters were declared for multiple counties in south central Oregon as a result of the Bootleg wildfire, which lasted from July 6 through Aug. 15 and consumed an area more than half the size of Los Angeles. It was Oregon's third largest wildfire since 1900.

Blumenauer referred to a newly released analysis by The Washington Post, which reported that 40% of Americans live in counties affected by climate events in the past year, based on presidential disaster declarations in 820 of the nation's 3,000 counties.

Those counties extend across the country, but they exclude the February 2021 winter storms that resulted in widespread power outages in Texas. Blumenauer said these climate events occur in states regardless of which political party runs the government.

"It's why I think we will be getting broad-based support for the changes," he said. "These events are national in scope and they are escalating."

Blumenauer said his proposal may not pass intact, but he is dividing it among several House committees. He is also looking for opportunities to attach parts of it to other bills, particularly other disaster relief measures going through Congress.

More for mitigation

FEMA usually spends money to help communities recover after disasters occur. Blumenauer said that amount is likely to go up as climate-driven disasters become more frequent and more intense. But he also said it makes sense for FEMA to direct money to help communities do more in advance of disasters, such as mitigating hazards and improving infrastructure.

He said disaster spending will dwarf any other federal infrastructure program — including the $1 trillion bill that Congress passed and President Joe Biden signed Nov. 15 — for the next five years.

"It's clear it's not going to get better anytime in our lifetimes," he said. "In some cases we are going to have to spend more money. But we need to be able to spend it better and help people cope — and in some cases, provide alternative housing so they are not forced to live in dangerous circumstances, and help people make the transition. We are not going to be able to make these changes overnight.

"Taking some of the money we are spending on actual disasters and being able to manage the impact on people will be more humane. In the long run, it is going to save money. It's not an either/or matter."

The legislation also will define a "disadvantaged community" that qualifies for special federal help. Blumenauer said residents of such communities often live in hazard-prone areas because they have no place else to go. An example can be found in basement apartments in New York City, where flooding from Hurricane Ida last September resulted in deaths in what were affordable but illegal residences.

Blumenauer has worked on changes to the federal flood insurance program during his more than 25 years as Oregon's 3rd District representative. Structures built within designated floodplains do not qualify for federal insurance, but there has been resistance — until climate-driven floods have reshaped the debate.

"There's a reason for so much development in low-lying areas," he said. "What we want to be able to do is for FEMA to respond to the challenges of disadvantaged communities, to help people move out of harm's way, and to design impacts that might be easier for them to cope with."

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