Unprecedented Natural Disasters in a Time of Climate Change: A Governors Roundtable


MICHELLE WILLIAMS:
Welcome to the forum, livestreamed worldwide
from the Leadership Studio at the Harvard T.H. Chan
School of Public Health. I’m Dean Michelle Williams. The forum is a collaboration
between the Harvard Chan School and Independent News Media. Each program features
a panel of experts addressing some of today’s most
pressing public health issues. The forum is one way
the school advances the frontiers of
public health and makes scientific insights accessible
to policymakers and the public. I hope you find this program
engaging and informative. Thank you for joining us. [MUSIC PLAYING] TIM MCLAUGHLIN: Welcome. My name is Tim McLaughlin. I’m a correspondent
in Boston for Reuters. And I’m today’s moderator. Our panelists, starting
from my immediate right, are Steve Beshear, the
61st governor of Kentucky. Then we have Peter Shumlin,
the 81st governor of Vermont and a recent Menschel
Senior Leadership Fellow at the Harvard Chan
School of Public Health. Jay Nixon, the 55th
governor of Missouri. And joining us remotely
is Christine Gregoire, the 22nd governor of Washington. This event is being presented
jointly with Reuters, and we are streaming live
on the website of The Forum and Reuters, as well
as on Reuters TV. We’re also streaming live
on Facebook and YouTube. And this program will
include a brief Q&A and you can email questions
to [email protected] Now every year,
natural disasters kill hundreds and cause
billions of dollars in damage. And many worry that
these events are becoming more frequent and more extreme. Today, we have a
group of governors who are very
experienced, and they’ve dealt with a wide range of
natural disasters, tsunamis, ice storms, tornadoes,
flooding, drought. We’ll have a chance
to hear from them about their personal experiences
in these times of crisis, as well as the preparations
and collaborations that have to happen to
get ready for whatever nature has in store. We will also discuss how
states, the federal government, local officials, NGOs, and
businesses can work together to prepare and respond
to the disasters. To set the stage, we’re going
to look at a clip from Reuters about historic flooding
in Arkansas and Oklahoma this spring. SPEAKER 7: An
entire neighborhood drowned in floodwaters. SPEAKER 8: It’s
pretty devastating to see all this water
in a neighborhood. SPEAKER 7: And now thousands
across Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana are
bracing for more Thursday as swollen rivers keep rising. SPEAKER 9: This is a flood
of historic magnitude. It surpasses all
Arkansas River flooding in our recorded history. SPEAKER 7: The river, according
to the National Weather Service, as high as 45
feet in some places, threatening communities and
forcing many to evacuate. As the record
levels raise fears, the aging levees may
not be able to hold up. SPEAKER 10: Levees are designed
to hold water temporarily, and they’re going
to hold water longer than they have in the past. So we are monitoring. When I say we, I’m talking
about the entire team, from local, county,
state, and federal. SPEAKER 7: More than a
week of violent weather, including downpours
and deadly tornadoes, has lashed the
central United States, turning highways into lakes
and submerging all but the roofs of some homes. In Oklahoma, at
least six people have died in the latest round
of flooding and storms according to the state’s
department of health. And in Louisiana,
the Mississippi River was also at record flood levels. Back in Arkansas,
Governor Asa Hutchinson said he sent a letter
to US President Donald Trump asking for a
federal emergency declaration for his state. TIM MCLAUGHLIN: Now
Governor Beshear, can you tell us about the most
challenging natural disaster that you dealt with as governor? STEVE BESHEAR: Well
Tim, I think you’ll find that all of the former
governors that are on the panel today will tell you that they
experienced an increasing number of natural disasters
while we were in office. And I don’t think
there’s any question that they’re related, at least
in part to climate change. My biggest one in
my eight years was an ice storm that hit
Kentucky in February of 2009. And it caused every
one of our 120 counties to be in states of emergency. It took down all
of our power lines, took down our telephone lines. We had no heat, no lights,
and no communication. And very quickly, we found
out that our hospitals and our nursing
homes, many of them, didn’t have any
backup generators. So we literally had
lives on the line. I mean, kids in neonatal
units, people in nursing homes, people in intensive care units. And it highlighted for me
very quickly the communication that is necessary between
state and federal officials in an emergency like this. As a matter of fact,
it highlighted for me the lack of
communication at times that you find because
everybody has good intentions. But particularly on the
federal level, you have silos. You’ve got the
Corps of Engineers. You’ve got FEMA. And I mean, we needed everything
and we needed it right away. We needed big generators. And so we were
communicating constantly. And I’d get one story
from one agency. I’d get another story
from another agency. But what I didn’t get
was any generators. And so after a few hours
of this, fortunately, I could pick up the phone and
call a friend of ours Janet Napolitano. She had been
governor of Arizona. We got to know her
while she was governor. She was then Secretary
of Homeland Security. And I got her on the phone. She said, you’re in
a mess, I know that. What can I do to help? And I said, here’s a story. I can’t get a straight
answer and I’ve got to have these generators. She said, what do
you want me to do? I said, what I want you to do
is set up a conference call within an hour, get the
leaders of FEMA, and the Corps, and me on the phone, and I
want you to cuss them out within an inch of their lives. And tell them if we don’t
get those generators in the next hour,
their jobs are gone. So she said, OK. And that’s what we did. And you know what? My generators showed up. And it’s just an
example of how siloed you can get in these agencies. And you know, you’ve got
to cut through all of that if you’re going to
get anything done. And I know that every one
of these former governors have had those kinds
of experiences. And you just gotta grab it
by the neck and go do it. And I think we learned some
valuable lessons from that, and the federal
government did too. TIM MCLAUGHLIN: That’s great. Now, Governor Shumlin,
when we think of Vermont, we rarely think of tropical
storms and hurricanes. But Vermont took major damage
from a Tropical Storm, Irene, in your first term. Can you tell us about that
and how you responded? PETER SHUMLIN: Sure. First of all, I’m
always going to defer to my great governor of
Kentucky here for anything today because he’s actually
related to a governor. So I’ve got to treat him
with tremendous respect. The rest of us are out on
the streets looking for jobs. Listen, congratulations
by the way. STEVE BESHEAR: Thank you. PETER SHUMLIN: His son’s
recount is over, right? STEVE BESHEAR: Yep. PETER SHUMLIN: He won. He’s going to be
a great governor. Not as good as his dad, but he’s
going to be a great governor. Listen. So this is what happened to me. And we all went to
baby governor school. We all got elected
at the same time with the biggest
class of new governors I think in the
history of America. Anyway, they don’t teach you how
to deal with significant storms that come your way. So as Tim just
mentioned, Vermont is not the place that you
think of for hurricanes. This is what happened to me. I had only been in office
for a few months, first term. Hurricane Irene
is coming our way. Everyone thinks it’s
going to hit Manhattan. The mayor, the
governor are trying to evacuate buildings
and get ready. Anyway, it didn’t. It missed Manhattan. It hit Vermont. It totally devastated us. So literally wiped
out our roads, 540 miles of roads, bridges. It killed seven
good Vermonters who got taken down by
little teeny brooks that became raging rivers. We got 21 inches of
rain dumped on Vermont in a matter of hours. So when you have a state
that is mountainous with valleys all over the
place, you know what happens. Extraordinary flooding. You couldn’t get
from east to west. Houses, businesses, just
total complete devastation like we’ve never seen before. So as a governor, you sit there
and your head is spinning. Where do you start? Everyone’s isolated. No one has electricity. No one has power. No one has water, or
many people don’t. They can’t get out
of their communities. You can’t get them to
health care facilities. Unmitigated disaster. I think there are a lot
of lessons for all of us. And what I always
say when I think back on Hurricane Irene is, you know,
that’s just a warning sign– And I think the other
governors would agree with me– for what lies ahead. In other words, if you just take
the carbon that we’ve emitted, knowing that there’s
about a 20%, 30% year lag before you feel the
effects, you know, these are little warning signs. You open up the press
today and they always call these in the
press 100-year events. I’m like really? I had three of them
when I was governor. But a 100-year event in
Venice right now, right? Underwater. And you read about the
wildfires in California that just happened two weeks
ago, some still burning. 100-year event, except that
we had it happened last year and the year before. So I think the
lesson for all of us is, in addition to
the kind of snags that Governor Beshear
just referred to, how do we rebuild for resiliency
knowing that these are little warning signs for the
tragedy and tremendous pain that we’re going to
face going forward as a result of the carbon
we’ve already emitted. And I think that’s the
conversation we all need to have. We scramble. We did all the things
you got to do to rebuild. Incredibly painful. Vermont came together. You couldn’t dream of a
more highly spirited people who get out. They don’t wait for the
federal government to show up. They take out the chainsaws. They pull out the tractors. They start taking the
backhoes out into the roads. We go into the rivers and try to
get the gravel that washed out back on so we can rebuild even
though my environmental people are freaking out. You go through
all these hurdles. The biggest lesson
for me was that when it came to FEMA that Governor
Beshear was just talking about, my biggest battle was that,
I think biggest lesson, we were still in the era in
2011 where the rules at FEMA were that you had to rebuild
the way that the storm had found your disaster. And I was like, really? Like literally, this
was my third storm. I’d only been in office
for seven, eight months. And I called up President
Obama and the team and I and I said, are
you really telling us that you want to– it
was my second natural– it was the second time I’d
gone for federal aid. You really want me
to put culverts back so I can come back here in
three, four, five, six months and tell you they
washed out again? Like, there’s got to be
a smarter way to do this. Anyway. The result was that we sent
our team down to Washington. We worked together with
Obama and Craig Fugate, the administrator at that time. And they were just
extraordinary. And over time– you know,
it took a little time– we changed the rules. And I think not just for
Vermont, but for everybody now, we rebuild for resiliency. And I think that was one of
the great lessons that came out of Irene up in Vermont. Governor Gregoire, you’re
unique in that you’ve dealt with tsunamis and wildfires. Tell us about your preparation. What did that look like? And what do you
think governors need to keep in mind as they prepare
for other kinds of disasters, some lessons learned there? CHRISTINE GREGOIRE:
Well, it’s true. We on the West Coast really
see the threat of tsunamis, earthquakes, and forest fires. And it’s a constant threat, to
be perfectly honest with you. It was a wake-up
call in 2011 when Japan had its major tsunami. And we prepared. We were ready. But just for those
who may not be familiar with how
you prepare, you have a warning
system on your beach. And when that
warning system hits, it doesn’t tell
you how big it is, and it doesn’t tell you
how quickly it’s coming. And then for the most part
on those beaches that, particularly in the summertime,
have a lot of tourists, there’s probably only one
road in and out of that area. So if, in fact, the system
works as it should, still, can you imagine the
potential problems that we’re going to have? So we’re constantly
trying to find new ways to address
that should we be hit by another big tsunami. In the area of
earthquakes, we’re always in the western
part of our state waiting for the
big one to arrive. The last one was in 2001. It was 6.8, about 60
miles south of Seattle. But we were within
literally seconds– less than 10 seconds– of taking down the largest
floating bridge in the United States just out of Seattle
connecting over a lake, and the entire
seawall in Seattle, and a major elevated highway. I can’t even remotely
imagine the devastation. We’d replaced both structures,
but we are constantly on the alert on the ready. The area where we are
progressively seeing things get worse and worse
and worse every year– I declared more emergencies
than any of my predecessors, and most combined– really relates to wildfires. And you can see
what has happened most recently in California. It’s hitting the west
coast from British Columbia to California, because
we’re highly forested. And we have some
beetle infestation. And we have drought
conditions, the results of which is we’re having
these terrible forest fires. So we’re all prepared, I
think– every one of us– to deal with one
large forest fire. But what has happened is
the frequency every year, we can expect it. But they’re getting
larger and larger. We are not prepared to deal
with two or more simultaneously. Now, we help each other. Our crews from Washington
state have just returned from California. But I will tell you, the lesson
I learned when I first got into office, like my friends– my fellow governors–
was, you got to prepare. Prepare, prepare. And then you cannot
over prepare, to be perfectly honest with you. So we have a command center
run by our National Guard. We have representation there
from local government, county government, state, and federal. And we’re constantly
paper drilling. But we also do simulations. We do it with British Columbia
across our international border, as well as with
our friends to the south and to the east– Idaho and Oregon. But no matter what
you do, you’ve got to prepare for the worst. And even if you do,
something is unexpected. Some circumstance, something
happens that you just could not, did not anticipate. So the best thing I learned
is constant preparation for the worst and
the unexpected. And that’s what we’ve
dedicated our state to. TIM MCLAUGHLIN:
Thank you for that. Now Governor Nixon, you
were governor of Missouri when one of the
deadliest tornado strikes happened in Joplin in 2011. Tell us about that event. And what did you learn
during the response? JAY NIXON: Well, I think– well, thank you. And thanks to everybody here,
and a great group of folks that have managed
in difficult times and done amazing jobs doing it. The numbers in Joplin really
kind of set the scene, really. You had a situation in which
three tornadoes came together. And they were downward
pressure tornadoes, so instead of bouncing
across, they just ground into. And so you had a six-mile
long, about a mile wide, area in which you had
11,000 cars wiped out, the hospital wiped
out, 161 dead, over 1,000 people hospitalized,
schools wiped out. And so you had this situation
similar what to what Peter was talking about. You didn’t have
communication, you didn’t have anything
in that area. And we learned a lot from it. And one of the things was
that these nongovernmental organizations– if you
organize the charity help, if you organize these
other forces of good– they can be a force enhancer in
an incredibly significant way. The other thing we
learned, natural disasters are harder on people who
already have hard lives. Floods happen. What’s the old line? You live down by the river. They happen to people who
are already challenged. And so bringing in the
social service agencies, bringing in the mental
health agencies. One of the things we did was
set up a mental health center in Joplin. And you look then two, three,
four, five years later, you have fewer suicides than
people had thought, fewer drug problems than you
would think, when you look at the statistics. So remembering that these
natural disasters affect families and individuals
that are already challenged, and you’re ready in that
vein also is important. Plus the other thing– you’ve
got to own the information. The governor’s office is a
place in which real facts come. When you don’t have TV
or you don’t have radio or you don’t have
things, rumors start. We had a situation
with a tornado in St. Louis where somebody
started a rumor on Twitter that it had hit this hotel, and
there were hundreds of victims. It just wasn’t true. And you always–
down in Joplin they said 1,500 people were missing. That wasn’t true. Obviously, we had a
lot of people missing, but there weren’t 1,500. It got so bad that
people were calling in from other states who
had committed murders to say that the victim was
in Joplin during the time. Seriously. But the bottom line
is that engaging with these non-governmental
organizations. The other thing I
really recommend is thinking beyond the tragedy. If you’re going to
lead, you’ve got to be out in front of people. And the best way to do that, and
some of the preparation thing that Christine talked
about, is things to do on down a week later, a
month later, two months later. And if you aren’t
looking on down the line when these things
hit, then you’re going to be playing
defense the entire way. But the bottom line
is, you’ve got to count on the goodness of people. But when you get a
challenge of this magnitude, the governor has to
provide confidence, has to be on the ground,
in the place and see it. We work very closely with
our religious partners, our faith-based folks. I mean, people tell their
preacher stuff they’d never tell the government. And it’s a very useful way to
get additional information. But we learned a lot. And I’m proud to say
that that one year– well, even, quite
frankly, that same year when we started
school, the tornado was in May on graduation day. When school started August
17, 98% of the kids were back. Our fear was we were
going to lose the town. Like Greenwood, Kansas
after that tornado that happened there, two years
later, only 23% of the people were there. I’m proud to say that Joplin
is back, it’s growing, more population it
had at the time. But these NGOs and the
churches and the community were exceptionally vital
and essential to get that kind of recovery. TIM MCLAUGHLIN: Thank you. So we’re going to
shift the conversation to look at these issues in
a little more deeper dive on them. And so let’s start with the
second clip from Reuters. And this is about
the heatwave that affected most of the
country this past summer. REPORTER: The heat wave is here. Temperatures across the eastern
and central parts of the US soared on Saturday as
officials warned residents to stay indoors. BILL DE BLASIO: Everyone’s
got to take it seriously. This is a potentially
dangerous weather situation. REPORTER: The National
Weather Service said temperatures are due to
reach the mid to upper 90s. But with the humidity,
the heat indices will hit as high as 115
degrees in some areas. The heat wave is sprawling from
Kansas to the Atlantic coast, and from South Carolina to Maine
with some 124 million people affected. In Baltimore,
Maryland, authorities reported more than
2,400 outages, including at a senior center. SPEAKER 11: This is
a deadly situation. REPORTER: In New York City, the
MTA suspended subway service on multiple lines during Friday
rush hour due to a system malfunction, leaving commuters
sweltering and frustrated. SPEAKER 12: Hot and aggravated. It makes no sense at all. I’m just going to get home. SPEAKER 13: Oh, my gosh. With the heat and the messed
up train, it’s too much. It’s just too much. Because there’s no air. REPORTER: Forecasters
say the heat wave is expected to
continue through Sunday with little overnight relief. TIM MCLAUGHLIN: OK. So we’ve heard
about the heat wave. And we know about
the flooding and all these natural disasters. And so Governor Shumlin,
you touched on this. When we rethink how
we’re going to rebuild after a natural
disaster, maybe you could kick us off by giving
us one or two examples of how you redid it in a different
way, after you’re getting, I guess, more
flexibility from FEMA and the federal government. PETER SHUMLIN: Yeah. I mean, I think
all of we governors face the challenge that
Governor Nixon just referred to, which is you have this
mess on your hands. Nobody gives you instructions,
yet you’ve got to be a leader, stand up and make it happen. And then after it’s over, how do
you turn that into a situation where when it happens again–
because we all know it’s coming at you in some form or other– what do you do? I had a bit of an
advantage and respect it when I ran for governor. It was bottom of the recession. It’s when we all ran. There wasn’t a
politician in America who wasn’t running on jobs. And one of the first things
I said to create jobs was, hey, listen. If you elect me, we’re
going to shut down our aging nuclear power
plant that was leaking, which was long overdue. And they were gonna relicense
it for another 40 years. We’re going to build out
solar and wind like mad. We’re going to
turn our utilities into energy efficiency companies
instead of companies that just try to produce as much
juice and sell as much of it to the customer as they can. And when we do
that, I think we’ll put money in
Vermonter’s pockets, because renewables are cheaper
than oil and coal coming from out of state. I said, we’ll create jobs,
because any transformation creates thousands of jobs. But I said, most
importantly, we’ll show how a small state can
be an example of where we’ve got to go to avoid big storms
and tragedies that we’re all talking about here. So when Irene hit– and you
gotta remember, most of us, when you win elections, just
like Governor Beshear’s son, in tight elections
the first time. The second time you
usually do better. So you got to remember that
roughly half the people don’t agree with you. And my opponent said,
hey, you know what? This guy’s nuts. When he shuts down the
nuclear power plant, he’s going to kill thousands
of jobs right there. He said, you know,
renewables are more expensive than coal and oil. So that’s going to take
money out of your pockets, not put it in. And this climate stuff
is all garbage anyway, because it’s not
created by human– this is all phooey,
was the normal argument that Republicans made. Anyway. The long and short
of it is when Irene hit, literally nine months in,
and Vermonters are all going, holy God. We’ve never seen
anything like this. Like 21 inches of rain? This isn’t Costa Rica, you know. And so they literally
started going, hey. | know, maybe this guy’s got a
point about some of this stuff. So my point is,
I think that once you get through the
tragedy of rebuilding and the pain that’s associated– and just like
Governor Nixon said, it’s the folks who are
struggling the most get hit the hardest, every single time. And so you got to dig
your way through all that. But I think the important
message for all of us has to be, how do we
change our behavior really quickly so that we– and we
ended up being the number one solar state in America. We put up so much wind power
they wanted to throw me out. Like, oh, we got
beautiful mountains, and someone’s putting
windmills all over them. The guy that came in after
me actually ran on a platform that he’d do a
moratorium on wind. And he won. You know, that’s how much people
like you in their backyard. But I kept saying, hey,
it beats the alternative. Like, we were all kind of burnt
up here, or flooded, or both. My point is that
there are things that you can do in
addition to just crisis management as a governor
that will help lead us to a less drastic future. And I think that’s
really important for us to keep the eye on
the ball on that. TIM MCLAUGHLIN: And any of the
governors can chime in on this. But we talked a little
bit about there’s a disproportionate
impact on people who just before
the disaster don’t have resources at the ready. They don’t have insurance. They don’t have a
lot to fall back on. So maybe one of
the governors can talk about how we help those
folks recover from a disaster. JAY NIXON: Well, I think one
of the underused, underfocused areas that we found
a lot after Joplin and a couple other things is
the whole mental health area. I think getting mental health
professionals on the ground is extremely important early on. They can then diagnose
the general feelings so that you don’t have
more spousal abuse, more illegal drug use, all of the
various things that happen. And then the other
thing is, you’ve got to empower individuals
to be in charge. I mean, Peter was talking
about the folks in Vermont. I’d say the people in
Missouri are the same. I’m sure all of us are
very proud of the folks of our respective states,
even the Costa Ricans, I’m sure are proud. But they have to be part of it. The people have to
be part of this. You’re talking about safety,
you’re talking about recovery, and engaging folks at
a personal local level that they’re helping
fix back their towns and that there’s a better– as
Governor Shumlin said, is there a better tomorrow here. This is not going to be
something that happens all the time, and we get worse. So remaining as you can
realistically optimistic is exceptionally important. So it’s mental health
resources on the ground, keeping the regular parts of
people’s lives moving forward. That’s why we were so committed
to starting school on time. I mean, we didn’t
even have schools. We rebuilt. We took
a mall and turned it into a high school in 55 days. We took a factory and turned
it into a middle school in 51 days. Not a lot of windows, but– And I had to negotiate
to get this mall. The only difficult
part of the negotiation was that the owner of the mall
wanted the school lunch program to run through the food court. And we were– we were unwilling
to go to the food court level of the deal. PETER SHUMLIN: You’re tough. JAY NIXON: Yeah. You know. We had to do a few things. We paid a little money. But the point is, thinking
about normal things and getting people
back to the normal life that they live is exceptionally
important if you’re going to get through these
things and get to recovery. Because if you do
that, then you’re going to have plenty of time
to plan for the next one. You’re going to have some– and once again, what others
have said about this resiliency rebuild– I’m in the middle of
a project now looking at levees, some of which haven’t
been rebuilt from last year, and the Mississippi and
Missouri River, what do we do? How do you choose which ones
are going to be rebuilt? In essence, what property
you’ve giving up– none in Kentucky, obviously. And none in Missouri. That’s what attitude you take. You just don’t want
it to happen to you. So I think that’s when you
can build the relationships that you are a source of
information that’s real, that you have a broader
interest in this other than just getting people
back to where they were the moment before this
happened, and you engage the public in moving
forward together. Only then can you amass
the kind of goodwill you need to ignore a lot of
laws and regulations, which you have to do in– I use to say after Joplin,
the thing I loved about it most was you could just
sign these orders getting rid of laws for a while. PETER SHUMLIN:
Yeah, it was great. JAY NIXON: I mean, you had
two hospital– in Joplin you had two hospitals. And it was one of the last
places in the country where they were closed systems. If you went to one
hospital system, you could not go
to the other one. Well, one gets hit by a tornado. It’s wiped out. So I just signed
and order saying you could go to either one. Yeah. Done. And everybody followed
it and whatnot. And it had absolutely no mark
of any sort of legality to it, but it worked, because people
absorbed, it understood it. We talked to leaders of
all this sort of stuff. So sometimes you got to
think out of the box. But if you don’t have
the people with you, you’re not going to
make any progress. STEVE BESHEAR: Well,
what these disasters do cause is what Jay is talking
about, it wakes people up. No question. And it does give
you the opportunity, then, to do some things and
to make some things happen that you don’t otherwise have. And so you have to take
advantage of these things to cause– you know, we made all the
hospitals and nursing homes and all of these places
get backup generation. You get communities to start
planning to where, well, where will we have a shelter
if we need a shelter? Where would we
bring in the food? Where will we do this? Where will we do that? And it does give
you the opportunity to make some things happen
and move your state forward in that sense so that
you’re more prepared, and you’re looking
to the future. PETER SHUMLIN: I’m
just remembering between the two of you, just
the point you’re making– so one of the calls I got in
the middle of the night when Irene was hitting was,
my secretary of administration calls and says, we got to
evacuate the state hospital. The state hospital
is the hospital where we have all of our acute
care mental health patients. In Vermont it was in one place. It had been there
for generations. The building had been condemned
by the federal government. Governors had been
condemning the place publicly for literally 50 years
from both parties, and no one had done
anything about it, because it’s expensive to
build new state hospitals. So anyway. You know, you’re sitting
here at 2:00 in the morning, we got to move
everybody out right now. And it’s just one of a million
problems you’re dealing with. And you’re like, who’s going
to take all of your acute care mental health patients
on a phone call. Hey, we’re looking for beds
for our entire state hospital. No one is set up to do that. Anyway. My point is, just as
Governor Beshear said– and I’m sure that Governor
Gregoire found the same kind of things out in her state. What I said– and
everyone was like, well, you got to put them back
as quickly as you can. I was like, no. We’ve been trying to get them
out of there for 60 years. Like, why are we going back? We are not going back. Very controversial, because
the whole community goes, all these jobs,
blah, blah, blah. I said, no, we’re
not going back. And we use that opportunity
to rebuild the resilience. So we’re not going back putting
the hospital on a floodplain in a building that
literally was like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. No kidding. It was an embarrassment. And we now have state of the
art acute care mental health facilities. But you gotta take
advantage of the challenge. TIM MCLAUGHLIN:
Governor Gregoire, I’m sure you have a lot
of insight on this. CHRISTINE GREGOIRE: Well,
I don’t know about that. My colleagues have
done a terrific job. The only thing I would like to
add is, more often than not, as Jay suggested, the people
that get hurt the worst are the people who
can least afford it. And oftentimes they
have– and more often than not– no insurance. And what happens when
the natural disaster hits is you get immense
amount of attention, immense amount of volunteerism. You get people there
and reaching out and all of the issues
that we just talked about. But then as time draws on, when
all that attention goes away, then these people
have to recover. And they don’t have the
means by which to do so. So part of the job, I
think, of a governor is to not let
everybody forget that. And while they donate and they
volunteer when the catastrophe or disaster is happening,
afterwards these people have to rebuild their homes. They have to
rebuild their lives. And they continually need our
attention, need our help need, need our assistance. So what we’ve done
with respect to that is we’ve asked not
only our non-profits, but our private sector, to be
there afterwards so that people can rebuild their lives,
rebuild their homes, and so on so that
we don’t forget and we don’t walk away when
the natural disaster has waned and people start to forget. So with that I also want
to re-emphasize everything my colleagues said
about take every time we had a natural disaster
we had to have a debrief. And everybody who was
involved was a part of it. And then we tried to
take critical steps to make sure we were ready for
whatever that natural disaster taught us. But again, every
natural disaster, no matter how many we
have, teaches us something. So we’re always learning,
always preparing, and always taking new actions
to make sure we’re ready the next time. TIM MCLAUGHLIN: I had
one quick follow-up. In a earlier
conversation we spoke about people want to help. And that’s kind of creates
a new problem, if you will, because you want to
make sure that you get the right things for the
right people at the right time. So early on you may
need generators. And in the second
phase, perhaps you need items that people
aren’t sending at that point. Can you guys talk about how
you coordinate that and some of the challenges
that you’ve faced in just getting the right
supplies to the right people at the right time? JAY NIXON: Well, I will say that
non-governmental organizations are very good at that. I remember the
story from Joplin. I had an event at a
place right afterwards. And the lady who was
running it came in and said, would you come here
a second, Governor? I said, sure. She said, come here
and look at this. And we walked in the
back of the room. And there was an 18-wheeler. And she opened it up. The whole trailer was
entirely full of toothbrushes. And she said, would
you tell everybody across the country we don’t
need any more toothbrushes? OK? PETER SHUMLIN: Don’t
tell your dentist that. JAY NIXON: Yeah, yeah. But everybody, for
whatever reason– we still have them down
there if you want them. And so that was one of the
ideas that put together for us, we had our what we call our
faith-based initiative in which we had meetings in seven
places a year, organized it, we put people so that
exactly as Christine said, you could have people coming
a week later, two weeks later. And we were evaluating
at that time. But these nongovernmental
organizations can be extremely helpful. And if you help coordinate
them, they’re pretty amazing. But if not, what you have
is a whole bunch of stuff you don’t need
from a whole bunch of people that think
they’re doing good work that doesn’t get you anything. And you got to recognize
that at the very beginning. And for us and
volunteers in Joplin, we had about 170,000
volunteers from all 50 states over the next year
come down there. Providing a safe place for
them to work with fine, but also making sure
that they were working on the projects that
needed to get done and not just
wandering around town. One of the big
problems I had, FEMA came in and put the
trailers in for people to stay at for a while. There’s actually two towns
there, Joplin and Webb City. Webb City is a pretty
good football program. Joplin at the time
wasn’t as good. They put the FEMA trailers so
that the Webb City coach– they were actually in Webb City. The Webb City football
coach was going in and recruiting the players
to come work for him. We had to stop the recruiting of
the players out of the trailer. You know, things like that
that you don’t think about. But in a football
or basketball town if they’re talking
to steal players, those become real issues. I mean, so you’ve got
to be grounded enough in the community that you
can pick up these things that are going on,
because like I say, it doesn’t take many
calls from the governor to the football coach
saying, hey, quit doing that. OK? And the bottom line is that
good information is hard to get. That’s why early
on I said, there’s a lot of bad
information out there in these situations, limited
amount of communication capacity, limited
amount of news capacity, focus on the disasters that are
happening each day as people are recovering. So making sure you’ve got
really good ears on the ground and people respect what you
say is extremely important to get the long-term
recovery you need. STEVE BESHEAR:
You know, you talk about food is one
of the main things that you’ve got to get
out there, and water. Because when we had
our ice storm, guess what runs the water plants? Electricity. You know, no water, no nothing. And so we were by
that time bringing in just loads and loads of these
pre-prepared meals and stuff. Everybody has them out there. And all at once
a news story hits from another state
about some contamination of these kinds of things. And you know, the news media
all just descends on me. And so what did I do? I got on a helicopter. I flew down to the place that
had these meals, had the TV cameras, and I ate one of them. PETER SHUMLIN: And your
lieutenant governor was rooting all the way. STEVE BESHEAR: Oh! Oh! I had the National
Guard stationed outside to get me to the hospital
if something happened. But you know, I mean,
we couldn’t just pick up all those packets
and send them back. I mean, we had to eat them. And so we did. And everybody was fine. But you know, that’s
what Chris was saying. You’re always running
into something just absolutely unique
and crazy that you’ve got to handle at the moment. PETER SHUMLIN: You know what? I’d be curious how other
governors found this. But I found that once
you’ve done the rebuilding and you’ve been through
a lot of the pain, and there’s still a lot
of residual pain, which is all the folks that have
lost everything they had, everything they knew. I mean, it’s really– as governor Nixon referred
to– the mental health resource you need. But I found the
toughest conversations we had was about–
and I’d be curious how you all dealt with this–
about when you had to go in and say, listen. You lost everything. You live in a community that
has been flooded before. There’s a federal
buyout program. It doesn’t make sense for us to
rebuild your home in the place where it was. And you want to have some tough
conversations, man, that is it. Because you’re literally going
in and saying to someone– in Vermont’s case
it was often people who had lived in these
communities for generations, it was their entire
center of their lives. And you’re going in and saying,
no, actually, not so much rebuilding. This is insane to
rebuild in your location. And we had some really
tough conversations around that in Vermont. I suspect my fellow
governors did, too. That’s going to be the
conversation going forward. I hate to say it’s not going
to be whether it’s a house. It’s going to be communities. It’s going to be cities. It’s going to be entire
Venice six feet under water coming our way, too. And there’s a
point where you got to start asking
the question, how do we actually continue
to rebuild in the places that we know are going
to be vulnerable? If this is a warning
sign for what lies ahead, are we going to listen
to the warnings? Or are we just
going to be stupid? It’s a tough conversation. CHRISTINE GREGOIRE: If I
could add one more issue that comes up. The idea that the
generosity of the public sometimes is overwhelming. And it’s not directed at
exactly what you need. You may need
generators, and you get a whole lot of other things. But one of the things
that typically happens– and we have to always be
on guard, and three of us are former attorneys general– is you’ve got these guys who
come in and take advantage of a terrible disaster
and start preying on people’s good intentions
and trying to get money. And of course the money
isn’t going anywhere to help the victims. And so when you’re trying to
manage one of these disasters, one of the things you
always have to think about is those who will take
advantage of the situation to the peril of
both those who’ve been the subject of
the disaster and those who are well-meaning and
trying to do something good. So always getting
that information out and getting credible
philanthropies’ names and numbers out is
critically important. PETER SHUMLIN:
That’s a great point. One thing we did in Irene
is we set up our own fund. It was a state– we appointed a board,
set up a 501(c)(3), started taking donations
and said to Vermonters, if you want an
organization you can trust, give to this organization. And it worked really well. JAY NIXON: The other thing
is the worldwide nature. With media now, the
worldwide nature of these and the
generosity comes from a lot of places other
than just your state. I remember we were about
six weeks after Joplin, we had announced we were gonna
start things back up again. We had made a decision
that since we didn’t have any libraries,
they were going to go paperless at the school. I get this call
from a sheik in UAE. So you take those
sheik calls, I guess. It was vetted a little bit. I think it was
officially a sheik. PETER SHUMLIN: Did you
tell him to go solar? JAY NIXON: Yeah. I said, I need a little of
that oil money right here in Missouri, is what I said. You made plenty of
profits over my folks. We drive bit trucks. STEVE BESHEAR: They
have plenty of sun. JAY NIXON: Yeah, they do. They have sun, too. My mind is that he said,
what can I do to help? And I said, well,
we don’t have books. And he said, would it
help if I bought every kid in high school a computer? And I said, yeah, that would. It would be about
a million dollars. And he was like, well,
where do I send the check? And so he did. And we did. And it did. But all I’m saying is that’s the
modern media, the people that are going to help
you, sometimes they’re people you’ll never meet
and never see again. And that’s why having
these safety things in play for the money is so important,
because somebody did check. And he was in fact a sheik. And yes, it was a check. And it did come. And it was spent
on those computers. And we had receipts
for everything and were able to look at it. I think that as
Christine points out, there’s a lot of folks
that try to profit, shall we say, off of some
of this sort of stuff. And governors, I think, are
in a very unique position to make sure that the
money is done correctly and that it’s open. But there is a huge
amount of generosity. And you shouldn’t just
think about the churches or the people in your own state. TIM MCLAUGHLIN: OK. So I think we’ll take– there’s a couple of
questions that I’m seeing. And one of them I think
is pretty interesting. So after you have a disaster,
there’s usually a cleanup. What about toxic materials,
like, sometimes with floods you read about how coal
pits are flooded out. And all the toxic materials are
in downstream drinking water, things like that. That has happened
on many occasions. I wonder if any of you could
share what sort of things you’ve had to deal with and how
you’ve lessened the damage, so to speak. STEVE BESHEAR: Yeah. You have that with virtually any
natural disaster that any of us experience. And with the flooding
in particular, you end up with a lot of
pollution of different kinds. And it really emphasizes
the importance of coordination of every
kind of agency that you have. You immediately think
of the National Guard when you think of disaster, or
FEMA and these kinds of things. But your energy and
natural resources cabinet, you’re the folks that
regulate water companies and all of these
kinds of things, they’ve got to be
involved in this, because there are so many
unknown problems that pop up on any kind of
disaster like this. And you can lose it real quick
if you’re not on top of it going in. And so that that type of
coordination and working together and being prepared
for that is essential. JAY NIXON: We were
concerned about the air quality around Joplin. It’s an area with a lot
of asbestos, a lot of lead in the construction. And when you have almost
7,700 houses wiped out, there’s just a lot
of stuff in the air. So what we did is worked
with our DNR and EPA to set up air monitoring every
hour through all the areas. But more importantly than
that, we coordinated that into the volunteers. Because the calls we
would get, if somebody wants to come to Oregon
to help us, is it safe? After 9/11, you had firefighters
and others that got sick. And I think you
almost have to certify that it’s a safe place
for people to work. And if you don’t do that,
then you won’t get the help. That was extremely
helpful to us. I think floods are the worst. I think people just
straight pipe everything they can when the water goes up. And we have had to
clean up a lot of things that you wouldn’t
normally expect. But the bottom line
is, if you don’t plan for those sorts of issues,
you’re going to get turned on. And you gotta watch. We had a little mold
develop down in Joplin that caused some wounds
to get problematic. You got to get those
reports and know where they are and figure
out physically where they’re coming from. So that the public needs it. The other thing is having this
information available public instantaneously. The public now has access
to public health data. And they’ll look at it. You can build confidence by
giving bad news, as opposed to confidence by
giving good news. Say, this is a problem
where it’s a problem. They know you know that. And consequently,
they build confidence. It’s ultimately a
confidence builder that’s necessary for any recovery. We moved about 2 and 1/2 times
the debris of the Twin Towers out of Joplin in 94 days. I say 94 because the
feds only paid for 90, and I got a little irked. So we were moving
a lot of stuff. And a lot of things
can happen there. And a lot of it was
trash and bad stuff. TIM MCLAUGHLIN: So we
have a question from– CHRISTINE GREGOIRE:
I’ll give you an example, if I might, with
respect to forest fires. Because obviously,
it’s the people within the vicinity
of the forest fire. But what happened to
us not this summer but the preceding summer
was the really bad forest fires in British Columbia. And the smoke came
down and was so intense that in proximity-wise,
we’re quite aways away. But Seattle, literally when
you went out on the street, you could not see very far
in front of you at all. And in fact, for
days the air quality was deemed the worst in the
world in downtown Seattle from the forest fires
in British Columbia. So we immediately got our
health people out in the media telling most vulnerable people
how to react, what to do, how to take necessary
precautions, and so on. So we don’t often think that
with something like a forest fire you’re going to have
that kind of consequence. But it’s real, and
it’s happening now every single summer to us where
the same kind of consequences from the forest fires are
reaching hundreds of miles away. And we’re having to have
our health people get out there and get the information
out and do the best we can. We’ve now got our
three forestry schools from Washington, Oregon,
and British Columbia working together on ways in which
we can try to manage this better so that we don’t have
the intensity of the health consequences
following these fires. TIM MCLAUGHLIN: So I was going
to say Penny had a question. And this is something
that I think about. How do I best prepare myself and
my family for the unexpected? So I’m thinking
about jugs of water in the basement; meals
ready-to-eat, if I have access to that; batteries;
those sorts of things. But maybe you all
can shed more light on how the ordinary citizen
can be prepared for the worst possible thing imaginable. JAY NIXON: I used to say
keep all your paperwork close and know where it is. But when the house has
moved like a mile away, it’s a little irrelevant. We had to go back down and
give people birth certificates, car titles. We kept saying, get your
insurance for your car. And they’re like, we don’t
have a title for the car. And quite frankly, I
haven’t seen the car in three or four days either. And so some of the normal
things you would tell them– keep all your things
in a safe location– I’m a big person to
think about attitude. I mean, clearly,
you have to be safe. But people are going to recover
if they want to recover. And if they feel like they
have a government that’s listening to them and
helping them do that, they’ll be patient. But if you lose patience
in one of these– and we’ve all had times when
you lose that point. The other thing I want
to say– cause at some point we’re gonna
run out of time here. The other thing as
governors you do is you listen to other governors
and see what they’ve done. I mean, I remember
like yesterday. The ice storm came in. Governor Beshear called up the
entirety of his National Guard. We were in Ops Center. And somebody said,
Kentucky just called up the entirety of
its National Guard. And they’re serious
people down there. This certainly wasn’t
done for press benefit or for some sort of show. It led us to realize
the magnitude. That storm hit a
portion of Missouri and not the entirety of it. But firefighters, when we had
the first canopy-to-canopy fires in Missouri, they came. We went west and got
training for our folks in what was going to happen. And you know, if we need ice
cream, we go to Ben and Jerry– go to Vermont and
get Ben and Jerry’s. No. But I mean, we learn
from each other. And whether– PETER SHUMLIN: I
sent you maple syrup. JAY NIXON: I know you did. And whether you’re talking
directly to the governor– I think governors are
unique in the sense that their staff and
their senior people, they’re basically on order to
cooperate with other states, especially in
situations like this. And there’s just a lot of good
information shared and strategy shared at a level below
governors that that makes a huge difference. And so the other
governors, what they have done, the other
states what they have done, is really oftentimes a
pathway to move forward. It really is. PETER SHUMLIN: Yeah. I think the answer
to the question– I mean, I don’t know
that you can prepare, because frankly, you don’t
know what you’re preparing for. So what I always say to folks
on a question like that is, listen. Maybe it’s better since you
don’t know what’s coming at you– a tornado, a
storm, where it’s coming, if it’s really going to hit you
or your neighbors or 6 states over– we know it’s coming. And what I find so extraordinary
about these conversations generally when you
read the press, when we have these conversations
is, we all go into the tragedy. We pay attention
to what happens. We send some money for help. We all feel kind of sympathy. Governors help out each other. We send in National Guards. We do all this stuff. We give advice,
blah, blah, blah. Then we move on to
the next tragedy. And it’s the next tragedy
nowadays is two or three weeks later or two or three
hours later in some other part of the world. And it seems to me
what we don’t have the conversation
enough is, how can we be screwing this up so badly? Like, literally, you go look
at the UN climate change report that came out exactly a
year ago today, almost, which is the biggest scientific
study of scientific studies ever conducted. Go look at what we’ve got
to do by 2050 to avert two degrees centigrade
total complete disaster for everything that
lives and breathes. And you go, well, wow. We aren’t doing too
well here, team. Like, we are dragging our feet. We’re in denial. We’re the only country that
pulled out of the Paris Climate Accord, for God’s sakes. We’re having a debate about
whether it’s real or not. Are you kidding me? Like, you got a bunch of
governors up here telling you, no. I mean, we all know. We know what’s going on. So I think it’s better
to use our energy to say to elected leaders, to
our neighbors, to our friends, how do we change our behavior
in ways that drastically reduces the amount of carbon we’re
putting into the atmosphere so that all of our
neighbors aren’t preparing for disaster like this in
another 10 or 20 years, like, all of our neighbors,
everyone we know. And not just
people, by the way– the bats and the
bears and the bees and everything else that
lives on this planet. We’ve got a big problem, folks. Let’s focus on the prize. That’s the prize. And time’s running out. TIM MCLAUGHLIN: OK. Maybe to wrap this– CHRISTINE GREGOIRE: If
I could just one thing. A personal lesson is when we
had the 2001 earthquake here, I couldn’t get a
hold of my children. And I was trying to take
care of my office and so on. But I didn’t have
a means by which to take care of my children. So here when we think of
things like earthquakes, we are now advising everybody
to have their children well understanding what they
should do in that circumstance and how they can make
contact with their parents or otherwise so
that everybody feels good and calm about
at least I know I’ve told my
children what to do, I’ve told my family
what to do, and so on. So I agree with everything
my colleagues have said. But that’s one thing that we’re
doing in Washington State, because the earthquake can
be unbelievably disruptive, and you can lose
all communication. And we’re trying to prepare
ourselves and our families. TIM MCLAUGHLIN: That’s
a good practical tip. And I think sometimes we
forget about those types of things, just the basic
communication mechanism to have. Just to wrap this
up, any other sort of take away solutions or messages
that any of you have for us? STEVE BESHEAR: One thing
that I would just go back and emphasize– and we’ve all
talked about it throughout this hour– is, the importance of
effective communication. And you know, when you’re
a governor or when you’re a mayor, you don’t
really realize, I think, the effect that you can have
sometimes just by people hearing you and
hearing from you. I know during that ice
storm, as Jay said, I called up the
entire National Guard. And they said, what
do you want us to do? And I said, I want
you in every town in our state walking
up and down the streets and knocking on doors
and checking on people. And let’s make sure
everybody’s OK. And so they were doing that. And I went down, there were
a few little radio stations that were still on the air. And I got on the radio
stations and just talked to people about, we’re OK. Everything’s going to be
all right and all that. And interestingly
enough, later on I keep hearing, you know what? When I saw the National
Guard walking up the street, I knew we’d be OK. When I heard your voice on the
radio, it’s going to be OK. And I mean, my God. You know, you don’t
realize the effect you can have on people by just being
there and being a part of it and communicating to people
and just telling them, hey, we’re here. PETER SHUMLIN:
Giving them a hug. STEVE BESHEAR: That’s right. You’re giving them a hug. And you’re saying,
we’re going to be OK. And you know,
that’s probably one of the most important
things we as people that have been in leadership
roles can understand is the effect you can have. PETER SHUMLIN: Mm-hmm. JAY NIXON: I’ll
tell another thing. It sounds almost goofy. But pets are important. The number of people that
die because they won’t leave their house because they want
to stay with their dog or cat, even if a tornado is
coming or a flood. Without going through
specific examples of that, I’ve been involved in some
of that sort of stuff. And you have to have a plan
where people can take– now where their kids are,
have a place that they can take their pets with them. It’s amazing how many people
die because they would rather stay with their dog or cat. And there’s no real point to
that, other than have a plan. And I don’t know where Huck
is right now– my dog– so. But it’s important. People will not leave. I mean, they just won’t. I mean, because a lot
of times, as you said, you’ve got to get these
folks out of there if there’s a flood coming. PETER SHUMLIN: Tim, I just
want to give a plug to CHRISTINE GREGOIRE: The–
biggest things I’ve learned is, people, when they’re hit
with one of these disasters are unbelievably resilient. They will take that disaster,
they will ready themselves, they will get right
back on and get going. And so in a time in our country
when things are so divided, there is no division
whatsoever when there’s a natural disaster. Everybody comes together. There’s this resilience by
those who’ve been victimized. There’s this outpouring
of love and thought and religious affiliations that
really want to help and make something happen. So I think our
country, quite frankly, is at its best when we
encounter one of these things, because we see the
true nature of people and how great they can be. And it’s a lesson that I’ve
learned time and time again in responding to
these disasters. PETER SHUMLIN: Good point. The only closing
thing I’d say is thanks to the School of
Public Health here at Harvard, because all four of
we governors have done some form of fellowship here. And what my message
continues to be guess what? There’s never been
a time where it’s more important to be
dedicating yourself to solutions of public
health, because all of this is landing on your doorstep. I mean all of this. And you’ve never had a
generation of students, of people who are focusing on
the mission of this school, where your time and your
timing is more important. It’s all coming your way. So thank you for having
this conversation. TIM MCLAUGHLIN: Well, I think
that’s a great way to stop it. And– STEVE BESHEAR: Stop a bunch
of governors from talking? TIM MCLAUGHLIN: We’ll
continue afterward. JAY NIXON: Stop the cameras. Keep it going. TIM MCLAUGHLIN: So I think
we should thank everyone for showing up in
person and online. And it’s been a
great conversation to have with everyone. Thank you very much. STEVE BESHEAR: Thank you. [APPLAUSE] [MUSIC PLAYING]

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