October 24, 2017

In Senate Floor Speech, Harris Calls for Emergency Resources for California and Urges Passage of Wildfire Disaster Funding Act

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WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senator Kamala D. Harris, a member of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, delivered remarks on the Senate floor that highlighted the devastation of the recent California wildfires and the impact they have had on the communities left in their wake. Harris called for the passage of the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act as part of the next supplemental emergency package.

Key Excerpts from Harris’ Remarks:

  • “And I must tell you, I am in awe at the work of the firefighters and first responders who fought tirelessly day and night. I heard stories of firefighters who worked 80 hours straight to do the work of evacuation and ensuring that no lives were lost and no lives were in peril. I'm in awe of their work.”

 

  • “California is resilient and we will rebuild, but we need help. More than 12,000 constituents have contacted our office. And we will continue to work with FEMA, HUD, the Small Business Administration, and the USDA to ensure that those affected in my state will get all the relief that is necessary.”

 

  • “We must pass the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act. Today, over half of the United States Forest Service budget is dedicated to combating wildfires compared to just 13% of the budget in 1993. […] California is leading the way and preparing for increasing wildfires, but the federal government needs to do its part."

 

Full remarks below, as delivered:

Mr. President, I thank the Minority Leader, Senator Schumer for his words of emphasis on the need to ensure that not only do our fellow Americans in Florida and Texas receive the relief that they so dearly and sorely need, but also that our fellow Americans in Puerto Rico and the United States Virgin Islands as well receive the relief that they need and receive the priority that they deserve.

California has been devastated, frankly, by the wildfires that we have just experienced. Ten days ago, I was in Santa Rosa, California, and firsthand witnessed the devastation that took place throughout that region, and in particular in Coffey Park.

I met with evacuees, I met with firefighters, I met with community leaders, elected leaders, and others who traveled to that area out of concern and with a desire to help.

I met County Supervisors, and two of them in particular, Supervisor Gore and Gorrin, their entire districts were on fire. One of the supervisors even lost her own home. Yet they were leading the charge in the recovery efforts and doing so in such a selfless way and with such courage.

But entire communities were devastated, and people have lost everything and are still suffering to an incredible extent because of the loss that they experienced and the fact that they have not been resettled.

My heart breaks, as I know all of us feel, for the 42 people and their families whose lives were ended in these fires. There were 42 people in this region who lost their lives. In addition, more than 8,400 homes and buildings were destroyed.

For example, in Santa Rosa, the housing stock in Santa Rosa - 5% of the entire housing stock is gone. And many of these folks in these neighborhoods are middle-class families, working families. They are plumbers and teachers and first responders who were barely able to meet their mortgage.

The fires have scorched more than 245,000 acres. 100,000 Californians were forced to evacuate.

And I must tell you, I am in awe at the work of the firefighters and first responders who fought tirelessly day and night. I heard stories of firefighters who worked 80 hours straight to do the work of evacuation and ensuring that no lives were lost and no lives were in peril. I'm in awe of their work.

I met a firefighter, his first name is Paul, who when I met him, he was wearing - he finally was taking a moment of rest from the firefighting he had been doing. He was wearing sweat pants and a sweat shirt and flip-flops that he borrowed from another firefighter because he lost his home and everything he had. Yet there he was on the front lines fighting to make sure that no other Californians, no other people faced the kind of devastation he faced.

There were more than 11,000 total firefighters who responded to the fire. Some from other states and even other countries. And they deserve our thanks and I stand here in the United States Senate to thank them for the work that they did coming to California and helping us deal with this crisis.

First responders and medical professionals did important work as well.

Fifty-one doctors from Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital who lost their homes and possessions still stayed overtime to help crowded emergency rooms full of patients. And I am uplifted by what I know, and the world now saw, which is the character of the California person and the Californians.

People rushed to help the elderly in nursing homes evacuate. I heard a story of a doctor who used his motorcycle to save newborn babies from a neonatal unit.

And now these folks need our help.

Senator Feinstein and I will continue to demand FEMA resources, which include the need for housing, individual assistance, transportation, and water infrastructure.

We need to make sure all Californians, regardless of status, can seek help at the shelters, and I spoke with DHS Acting Secretary Elaine Duke and confirmed that ICE will suspend immigration enforcement in the area until further notice.

It is our belief and it is our understanding as Californians that that notice will be clear when this effort will end in terms of not enforcing immigration, and we want to be clear when it's going to start so that we can tell Californians because right now they are trusting DHS’s word that this immigration enforcement has been suspended.

We will support - we're told that FEMA, through Elaine Duke, will also support emergency packages that provide disaster relief for the hurricanes in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and the United States Virgin Islands.

California is resilient and we will rebuild, but we need help. More than 12,000 constituents have contacted our office. And we will continue to work with FEMA, HUD, the Small Business Administration, and the USDA to ensure that those affected in my state will get all the relief that is necessary.

Congress needs to fund programs like the Community Development Block Grant and Section 8 housing to help find affordable housing for low and middle class residents. They need the help to find affordable housing. California’s facing an affordable housing crisis like many other states in our country, and this is something that has been highlighted by the devastation that these various states and territories have experienced recently, but it is an ongoing issue that we must deal with.

And we cannot stop there.

We need larger supplemental emergency packages that include helping California. And this has to be a long-term commitment.

California is experiencing the worst fires in history, and they are becoming more frequent. In the 1980's, fires burnt and wildfires burnt under 25 acres on average. Now, typical wildfires will burn over 100 acres. California's 2017 fire season has not yet ended, and it has already burned more acres than the average for the past five years.

In Southern California, from Kern County to San Diego, red flag warnings are occurring as we speak and there are currently up to 55 mile per hour winds and warm, dry weather with no humidity or very little humidity. These are the conditions that were at play during the most recent wildfire crisis.

We must also look at the future and how we can prevent wildfires from reaching this magnitude as we go forward. We must pass the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act. Today, over half of the United States Forest Service budget is dedicated to combating wildfires compared to just 13% of the budget in 1993.

Wildfires are treated differently than floods or hurricanes. Forest Service is not allowed to use general disaster relief fund at FEMA and that makes no sense.

And prevention is cheaper than reaction. The United States Forest Service estimated that there are 6.3 billion dead trees in the western states. Removing them would improve safety by mitigating wildfires. Also it would have an economic benefit and create jobs.

There are certain bills, and the bills that I mentioned, that help achieve this because it will allow the Forest Service to dedicate part of the budget to forest management and not just reacting. And we must listen to the experts. For example, CALFIRE agrees. Too often, states are picking up the bill for prevention and forest management.

And we should make it very clear, fires are not partisan. This bill that I mentioned, the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, is a bipartisan bill and it should be inserted cleanly into the next supplemental emergency package.

And finally, let's recognize the connection between these disasters and climate change. California is leading the way and preparing for increasing wildfires, but the federal government needs to do its part.

Natural disasters from fires to hurricanes to floods do not discriminate by region or by party. We must help each other when these travesties hit but also we must prepare for the future.

So in closing I would suggest and urge our colleagues to pass the supplemental bill and future emergency resources, ensure that federal agencies deliver prompt help on the ground, and pass the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act.

Thank you and I yield the floor.

 

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