November 29, 2012

“Sandy And Its Impacts: A Local Perspective”

Chairman Boxer, thank you so much not just for convening this hearing, but for your leadership in dealing with these issues. I thank you not only for responding to the needs of the communities and individuals who are impacted by these severe weather events, but your leadership in directing this committee to look at ways in which we can make these communities less vulnerable.

Sandy was a devastating storm. Eighty lives were lost as a result of the storm -- seven in my state of Maryland. Eight million people in the East Coast of the United States at some time were without power as a result of Sandy.

Maryland fared much better than our surrounding states and we sent a lot of our resources to help our friends in New York and New Jersey.  But it was a severe storm for the people of Maryland. The amounts of high sustained winds were unprecedented in our state. Seventy-mile an hour winds were hour upon hour doing incredible damage to our state. Heavy rains -  we had record numbers of rains from the storm -- nine inches in inner coastal areas that caused extreme coastal flooding and the storm surges were severe with waves as high as 7 feet.

I want to talk specifically about two regions in our state in which the people are today still trying to recover from the severity of the storm. One is Western Maryland. While we were experiencing nine inches of rain on the east coast of Maryland, in the Western part of our state in the Appalachia, they had this blizzard that occurred dumping 30 inches of wet snow.

Let me talk about one county, Garrett County, that is a county located in Appalachia, somewhat remote in the mountains. Total population is 30,000 people. Fifteen thousand homes were without power. You can do the arithmetic – that’s nearly every home. Three thousand trees were down in that county, as a result of the storm. People living in remote areas not easy to get to without power are extremely vulnerable to their public safety. Maryland devoted the Maryland National Guard, who made it their top priority. Forty personnel with 26 Humvees worked to save lives, and they did an incredible job.  We’re very grateful for their heroic activities in saving lives and trying to bring people into a more normal existence.

At the other end of my state on the Eastern Shore of Maryland they suffered a different type of damage as a result of Sandy. As you know the Eastern Shore is pretty flat; it’s pretty much at sea level. When a storm like Sandy approached, it caused severe flooding. In Somerset County, the people of Crisfield were severely impacted with the loss of their homes, the loss of their businesses; agricultural crops were ruined. This is a very vulnerable community, Madam Chair -- 32% of the people live below poverty. They don’t have a lot of options. They don’t have the resources to be able to take care of their emergency needs without assistance from government. I am very proud of the leadership of our state in trying to help those individuals, and the entire team that worked on this.

Many of you are familiar with Worcester County; it is where Ocean City, Maryland is located. 9.8% of the population of Worcester County lives below poverty and they have twice the number, on average, of elderly that we have in our state. They were particularly impacted by this storm.

Thanks to the extraordinary leadership of Governor O’Malley, our Maryland Emergency Management Agency (MEMA), and the full partnership that they brought into being, including our state local officials. We had extraordinary leadership from our county executives and the Maryland National Guard.  I was with them throughout the storm.  They deployed the people where they were needed.  They worked around the clock and they saved lives. I want to thank the Red Cross. I also had the chance to visit them.  They were there helping us and as soon as we were stabilized they moved onto the next community that could use their resources. 

We saw extraordinary efforts by our first responders and by our ordinary citizens who also helped save lives. We had evacuations, in Queen Anne’s County, Anne Arundel County, Hartford County, Baltimore County, and Baltimore City people were evacuated from their homes. 41 shelters were established, 1000 citizens were housed in these shelters.

The bottom line is that we can’t handle this on our own. We just want to underscore the point that Senator Carper made: we as a nation have come together to communities that have been impacted by these types of events and we have used the federal government and its resources to help bring those communities back to where they need to be. We were very much attuned as disasters have happened in all parts of our country to be a good neighbor, and we need help today.

 I want to thank President Obama for the disaster declaration for Maryland that allows FEMA to be available for public assistance. We have a request in for individual disaster assistance for individuals impacted – a proposal that is still pending. I am going to be working with Governor O’ Malley to make sure that the individuals impacted by this storm have as strong a partner from the federal government as we can possibly have.

Madam Chair, I think it is going to be highly likely that we are going to have to pass a supplemental emergency appropriations bill. I know that is not in this committee, but I do point out that we have to make sure that the resources are available. Congress will shortly be adjourning. I hope we will pay attention to that during this session of Congress, to make sure that the federal agencies have the resources they need to be able to deal with the consequences of Hurricane Sandy.

From this committee’s point of view we need to take a look at the environmental impact. There have been numerous oil spills as a result of Sandy that are having impact on our environment. We’ve had major problems on our shoreline and we are going to need to take a look at shoreline restorations and other issues and I would urge our committee to be prepared to deal with those issues.

As the chairman pointed out, we have to deal with the funding of a storm infrastructure – you are absolutely right. Our first obligation now is to make sure for the people that were affected and the communities that were affected we do what we can to bring them back to where they need to be. But we also need to deal with the public safety issues because these events are going to be occurring more frequently in the future.

Let me just give you one example: we have invested in Assateague Island. Assateague Island has been widened.  The beaches have been replenished so that it acts as a natural storm break to Ocean City, in which there are lots of people who live and have homes there. It worked, Madam Chairman.  Assateague Island worked. It prevented a lot more damage than would have otherwise occurred. I know it’s an investment and sometimes people wonder why we make those investments, but we make those investments to save lives and property and it did work. So I am going to be coming back to my colleagues and telling you that we need to invest in those types of common sense ways that we can deal with the realities of severe weather.

We also need, Madam Chair, your Resources Development Act, the WRDA Bill, I know you had a hearing on it. We need to move forward. It provides in areas where we can help with the necessary infrastructure to deal with flooding and storm damage. I’ve introduced the Water Infrastructure Resiliency and Sustainability Act to provide funding for communities and projects reducing flooding in vulnerable communities. It deals particularly with those communities that have sea level issues. Sea level is rising and we have to deal with that in the way that we provide support to our local communities.

As I said before, our first priority is to help the affected communities and individuals to make sure that they get the help that they need. But I would implore my colleagues to commit to addressing the problem that the frequency of severe storms is increasing and we can ill afford to neglect the threat to safety that is posed by these storms. Long-term safety must be our focus if we are to protect our natural environment and the health and safety of our citizens. 

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