“We can never be too prepared,” Biden said during an afternoon visit to the Federal Emergency Management Agency headquarters. “We’re going to spare no expense, no effort, to keep Americans safe and respond to crises when they arise. And they certainly will.”
The president warned of a busy season of hurricanes in the South and East, and fires in the West. The event followed the government’s response to a brief shutdown of the Colonial Pipeline, which threatened to lead to significant gas shortages across large swaths of the country. And it also comes as his administration continues trying to de-emphasize the impact of the country’s divisive politics amid natural disasters.
Last year, there were more storms strong enough to warrant a name than any year on record. The worst of the storms claimed dozens of lives and did tens of billions of dollars in damage.
“We all know that the storms are coming and we’re going to be prepared. We have to be ready,” Biden said. “It’s not about red states and blue states. You all know that. It’s about having people’s backs in the toughest moments that they face, ready with food, water, blankets, shelters and more.”
Biden has been determined not to get caught off guard, and he has learned lessons from watching his predecessors. A disaster can become one of the most politically treacherous areas to confront, where events can arise unexpectedly and put on vivid display any failure to respond.
George W. Bush was heavily criticized for his administration’s failure to prepare for Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and then for not providing adequate resources in the storm’s aftermath.
Donald Trump at times criticized states during a crisis, often focusing his ire on areas that had not supported him in the 2016 presidential election. In 2019, he threatened to cut off federal aid to California as it dealt with wildfires. He accused Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) of mismanagement but relented when Newsom called to make a personal appeal.
Trump also held up an aid package for Puerto Rico for three years, calling its leaders corrupt and only releasing the aid weeks before the 2020 election in what Democrats called a bid to win votes in Florida.
In a 2019 incident known as “Sharpiegate,” Trump and his deputies pressured the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to contradict its own experts and say that Hurricane Dorian was on a path that would severely affect Alabama. He also repeatedly questioned the link between rising temperatures and more frequent and intense wildfires.
Biden has tried to make a conscious break from his predecessor.
Early in his presidency, Biden mobilized his administration to respond to weather-related incidents across the South. He held several calls with governors of seven states, many of them Republicans. Some credited Biden with approving states of emergency — which can deliver federal resources and funding — with more urgency than Trump.
He also called Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey (R) on her cellphone hours after she toured the site of a tornado that killed a 14-year-old boy in her state.
“The president has made a commitment to do two things starkly different from the prior administration,” White House National Climate Adviser Gina McCarthy said in an interview. “The focus on science and using the government to solve problems and highlight them, and really tell the public the truth, and helping them prepare for that, is a breath of fresh air right now.”
Biden’s actions, she said, were aimed at conveying to Americans how the climate has already changed and what the United States must do to respond.
“That’s really going to make this climate issue real and relevant to people,” she said. “We just have to prepare for this, and the president is a realist. This is the world we’re living in.”
While the $1 billion in funding is a fraction of what taxpayers spend each year on disasters, it underscores a broader effort to account for the damage wrought by climate change and curb it. Last week, the president signed an executive order instructing federal agencies to identify and disclose the perils a warming world poses to federal programs, assets and liabilities, while also requiring federal suppliers to reveal their own climate-related risks.
The Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities program helps communities prepare in advance for hurricanes, wildfires and other natural disasters. The administration will target about 40 percent of the additional money to disadvantaged areas.
Brock Long, who headed FEMA from June 2017 to March 2019, praised the decision to increase funding for a program that he helped launch under the Trump administration. But he cautioned that the administration would have to do more to bolster everything from digital systems to private supply chains in the face of more extreme weather.
“We’re stuck in this unsustainable disaster-recovery cycle. We’re putting out massive amounts of money to help communities recover, instead of preparing for disasters,” he said in a phone interview Monday, adding that under current law the administration could direct up to $3.7 billion to the BRIC program. “While I applaud the increase in funding, providing $1 billion to mitigating our nation’s infrastructure is just scratching the surface.”
NOAA’s outlook last week said a 60 percent chance exists for an above-average storm season this year, with a 70 percent probability of 13 to 20 named storms.
In addition to the funding that Biden announced Monday, the administration also said it is starting to develop a NASA mission concept for an Earth System Observatory, which will deploy advanced technology in space so scientists and policymakers can better understand the interactions between Earth’s atmosphere, land, ocean and ice.
“If you want to mitigate climate change, you’ve got to measure it,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in an interview Monday.
Nelson said the agency plans to assemble a “comprehensive observatory” in coming years that will give scientists unprecedented insight into what is happening on Earth — and how to better anticipate and react to key shifts.
“In the big picture, I think understanding and preparing for extremes is the core of the climate challenge,” said Stanford University Professor Chris Field, who chairs the school’s Woods Institute for the Environment, in an email. “Extreme events are always the sharp end of the climate spear. But they are also super challenging to understand and forecast.”
Last year not only marked a record hurricane season, it also saw a startling number of billion-dollar disasters, according to a NOAA report released early this year. That research found that such catastrophes in the United States alone amounted to $95 billion from 22 separate billion-dollar events. The previous record for billion-dollar disasters was 16 in 2011 and in 2017.
The year marked the most severe wildfire season across the West to date, with California logging five of its six biggest wildfires in state history. Hurricanes and tropical storms battered parts of the Gulf Coast.
In addition, 2020 essentially tied 2016 as the hottest year on record, according to scientists. It also capped the hottest decade in recorded history.
Long, now executive vice president at Hagerty Consulting, said it was too early to judge Biden’s handling of natural disasters. But he warned that these events are only escalating: The toll during his time as FEMA administrator equaled nearly $456.7 billion in damage and associated costs, which was more than under the past nine administrators combined.
“Disasters can make or break a president’s legacy,” he said.