MONTPELIER — The Senate Health and Welfare Committee heard testimony recently on a bill that would incorporate “climate change readiness” into state preparations for natural disasters such as hurricanes, extreme heat and floods.
The bill, S.185, requires the Department of Health to “develop and adopt a statewide climate change response plan.” It further proposes that regional planning commissions “develop a communications plan for the purpose of mitigating and responding to climate change related public health risks.”
The sponsors are Sens. Virginia Lyons, D-Chittenden, and Sen. Richard McCormack, D-Windsor.
Testifying before the committee were Charlie Baker, executive director for the Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission; Barb Neal, the executive director of the Enhanced 9-1-1 Board; and Chris Campany, the executive director of the Windham Regional Commission.
Campany told True North that the state and town hazard mitigation plans already incorporate climate change language.
“They all make reference to what’s going to come with climate change,” Campany said. “So the idea is to have the networks in place. They don’t necessarily have to be specific to climate change, but you probably need to be prepared for what climate change is going to bring us that may be different than what we’ve experienced in the past.
“So that’s going to be more frequent and flashy storms, more frequent and heavier rainfalls, more frequent wind events, and that kind of thing.”
Baker told True North that the state’s emergency response systems to these types of natural disasters are already in place.
“I think a lot of this has already been in the works. I’m not saying it’s perfect, but it’s already going,” Baker said. “We’re constantly trying to improve the system.”
He added that lawmakers want more monitoring of events like extreme heat and floods.
“I understand that they are asking that we pay more attention to the types of events that may happen as climate change happens,” Baker said.
Lyons told the committee that she thinks hospitals have to do more to be ready for climate change.
“There are tick-born illnesses, there’s asthma, there are heat strokes, there are all of these things that come with changes in weather patterns and conditions,” she said.
Sen. Ann Cummings, D-Washington, expressed frustration that more help doesn’t come from Washington, D.C.
“The federal government says there is no climate change so why give grants to combat it,” she said.
Not all weather studies indicate that patterns are getting more extreme. A 2018 report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration indicates that last year was a record-breaking year for its lull in tornado activity. Another report by the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City pinned 2006 to 2015 as the longest hurricane drought in recorded history.
Climate change-related or not, preparedness for natural disasters has logistical challenges. Much of the committee discussion, especially with Barb Neal, regarded helping those with special needs during a time of disaster. She talked about a program called CARE, or “Citizens Assistance Registry for Emergencies.”
“What it does is it identifies through a self-registration process citizens who would require special assistance in a longterm, widespread situation,” she said. She added how this data is then linked with the 911 system and becomes accessible to the emergency call service so that they can prioritize getting assistance to those most vulnerable during a prolonged hurricane or flood emergency.
Campany told True North that another challenge — especially for rural Vermont — is communications. He said a lot of power systems went down during last year’s Halloween rain storm, but they were still able to work around that.
“Even during Irene in the southeastern part of the state, some of the towns were completely cut off, but we were able to communicate with one town that still had phone access to then be able to reach out physically to somebody and say ‘how are you?’ in the next town,” he said.
Campany said neither cell service nor landlines are a sure thing during a major storm event, so back up plans are important.
“Depending on the nature of the storm, if it’s a wind storm, that landline could be down too. So the main thing is to just have a system in place for how you are going to communicate if normal means of communication are down,” he said.