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EditorialIsland Voices

Column: Poor leadership leaves U.S. vulnerable to major disasters

Tyler Dos Santos-Tam
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Tyler Dos Santos-Tam

Although Hawaii was spared recently by Hurricane Douglas, continued vigilance is necessary with four more months left in hurricane season.

This year, hurricane season is compounded by simultaneous public health and economic crises. Unemployment remains mindbogglingly high, with Hawaii receiving more than 258,000 unemployment claims since mid-March. Nationwide, states’ safety- net systems are simply overwhelmed.

With cases of COVID-19 rising in Hawaii and elsewhere, President Donald Trump continues to abdicate his duties when leadership is needed the most. His failure to prepare our nation for this pandemic or take decisive action to curb its impact has left us dangerously vulnerable to new outside shocks and natural disasters, like hurricanes.

Here in Hawaii, just one storm could disrupt our lives for weeks or months, which is why we take prudent steps to prepare.

With climate change, storms will become more powerful. Instead of taking steps to ensure states such as Hawaii have what they need, Trump is fixated on deflecting responsibility and blame. His COVID-19 response was too little, too late. We simply can’t afford a repeat, especially in the middle of hurricane season.

States need support from the federal government to prepare for future disasters now. Hospitals and first responders need to restock supplies. Nursing homes need disaster plans accounting for the heightened COVID-19 risk their residents face. Utility and construction repair crews and essential workers must be readied with all the protection they’ll need on the job.

However, Trump and his allies like Mitch McConnell are failing us. Because they refuse to provide additional funding to state and local governments or extend boosted unemployment benefits, local leaders must scramble to pick up the slack.

Trump’s mismanagement has left the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) — already struggling to coordinate the COVID-19 response — understaffed and underprepared. Both of FEMA’s deputy administrator positions and many senior FEMA positions lack permanent leadership. As of mid-June, only six qualified personnel at FEMA were available to lead field operations, and just 37% of personnel was available to be deployed.

As recently as February, the Trump administration was advocating to slash the annual contribution to FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund by nearly 70%. Last year, Trump diverted $155 million from FEMA for his cruel immigration detention and deportation policies.

The ongoing pandemic and the ever-present threat of natural disasters make it clear: We need competent leadership in the White House, right away. It’s not too late to right the ship.

First, Trump should request additional flexible funding from Congress for state and local governments to fill critical budget holes, and extend the weekly boost to unemployment benefits throughout the pandemic.

Second, Trump must synchronize the hurricane and public- health response, with proper staffing and careful planning, especially regarding kupuna and people with disabilities. Poor and marginalized communities suffer the most when disaster strikes. We must not allow foreseeable threats to further deepen existing inequities in our society.

Third, Trump should immediately establish a second-wave strategy as states see rising caseloads. This includes utilizing the Department of Defense and National Guard in support of the public health response, and fully using the Defense Production Act and the Defense Logistics Agency to replenish and fairly distribute supplies.

Finally, Trump should restore an emphasis on science to the White House to tackle challenges from climate change to COVID-19.

The scale of the present crisis was not inevitable, and inaction at this critical time has been Trump’s choice. Voting in November is ours.

Tyler Dos Santos-Tam is the newly elected chairman of the Democratic Party of Hawaii, and the coordinator of Hawaii for Biden.

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