A downside of running for president as mayor of South Bend, Ind., is that it makes many of us wonder how in the heck the mayor of South Bend, Ind., thinks he can be president of the United States.
But one of the upsides is Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s vision of federal policy that is soundly tethered to ground-level realities faced by communities such as his. When federal wisdom drops down from on high, Buttigieg has seen what happens when it lands on South Bend.
Cities don’t always have the luxury of kicking the can down the road like Congress. Problems have to be solved. It has shaped his policy views. Case in point: his remarkably detailed plan to revamp the way the nation prepares for, responds to and recovers from natural disasters.
Every Democrat hoping to be president, including Buttigieg, has a detailed plan to combat climate change. Those are important. But I’ve seen no heftier plan for dealing with the disasters we’re already experiencing than Buttigieg’s. That may be because South Bend has experienced two major floods during his eight years as mayor. Sounds familiar.
So the mayor, no doubt, knows we have a painfully slow, ridiculously complicated and largely reactionary federal preparedness and response system, a system too often tangled up in contradictory regulations, congressional gridlock and tribal politics.
Cities, counties and states beg for federal assistance, federal bureaucracy churns ahead with glacial speed and Congress inevitably stumbles into a political scrum that gums up the works. Flood, rinse, repeat.
Communities inundated in mere hours or days wait months and years for the resources they need. When assistance arrives, people trying to put their lives back together find themselves stuck in a deep, frustrating muck of shifting rules and requirements.
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Disaster zones such as Puerto Rico languish without the help they need. Cedar Rapids waits a decade for needed flood protection funding. The list goes on and on. And a climate crisis spawning more frequent and more severe weather events is shining a glaring light on the system’s deficiencies.
Buttigieg argues we have to try different approaches.
“I propose the federal government invest in regional resilience hubs where a lot of the decision-making is local, but it’s backed by federal dollars,” Buttigieg told The Gazette’s Adam Sullivan and me during an interview earlier this month.
Buttigieg argued that rather than divvying up disaster-related resources by traditional government boundaries — cities, counties, etc. — planning and response would be better left to his proposed regional hubs. Borders would no longer be barriers to expanded cooperation aimed at addressing threats that respect no boundaries.
“The region is whoever pulls together to put in for the funding,” said Buttigieg, who has seen regional cooperation succeed in economic development efforts.
“The value is that sometimes county lines or municipal lines can be misleading in terms of what really constitutes a community of interest. And we need to promote that kind of regionalism because more and more communities are finding their real rivalries aren’t with their immediate neighbors like we used to think, but sometimes with a community in China that’s half a world away,” he said.
Buttigieg’s disaster plan calls for more equitable distribution of federal relief, which would be administered through permanent funding sources not subject to Congressional connection or political power plays. He’d explore the creation of a national catastrophic extreme weather insurance program, dedicate more resources and personnel to the Federal Emergency Management Agency and pump additional dollars into developing farming methods that diminish damage from extreme weather. Incentives likely would help persuade farmers to adopt those practices.
“If we can find billions and billions of dollars just to cover the damage being done by the trade war, and the tariffs … surely we can find more resources to invest cooperatively with farmers in making sure our practices are leading the way globally on sustainability and clean water,” Buttigieg said.
If Mayor Pete somehow becomes President Pete, he would convene a Disaster Commission in his first 100 days that would make recommendations shaping his revamp of federal response and recovery.
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These are, of course, important issues for Cedar Rapids and Iowa as a whole. Severe flooding has become an annual reality. The only question is which watersheds lose the deluge lottery next.
Cedar Rapids is building flood protection and has secured considerable funding, but gaps are likely and additional federal help would be welcome. In the meantime, the city is threatened.
Temporary measures saved the day for most in 2016, but a larger crest could mean disaster.
A more robust, agile, science-based and smarter federal disaster response could reduce damage and speed up recovery. Even if Buttigieg fails in his presidential quest, his ideas provide a blueprint.
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