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What Vice President Harris Said — And Didn’t Say — About Hurricane Relief

In a “fireside chat” with actress Priyanka Chopra, Vice President Kamala Harris said the Biden administration is “thinking about the families in Florida [and] in Puerto Rico” and “what we need to do to help them in terms of an immediate response and aid.”

But she also talked about the long-term need to ensure equitable treatment of “our lowest income communities and our communities of color that are most impacted by these extreme [climate] conditions … that are not of their own making.”

Her remarks, which she made Sept. 30, set off a tsunami of criticism from Republicans, including U.S. Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, who accused the vice president of saying hurricane relief from the Federal Emergency Management Agency would be based on race.

“Harris said yesterday that — or day before yesterday — that, you know, if you have a different skin color, you’re going to get relief,” Scott said in an Oct. 2 interview on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

Host Margaret Brennan corrected Scott, saying: “That’s not what the vice president said.” Scott replied, “That’s exactly what she meant.”

But Scott was just repeating what had become a Republican talking point about Harris’ response to Hurricane Ian, which devastated southwest Florida and South Carolina.

Two days earlier, the rapid response director of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ reelection campaign responded to a tweet from @EndWokeness that misleadingly claimed, “Kamala on Hurricane Ian relief: The Biden administration will focus on ‘giving resources based on equity’ by directing funds to ‘communities of color.'” Christina Pushaw, the DeSantis aide, retweeted that comment and added, “This is false. @VP’s rhetoric is causing undue panic and must be clarified. FEMA Individual Assistance is already available to all Floridians impacted by Hurricane Ian, regardless of race or background.”

Conservative commentators and news outlets made similar claims.

On Oct. 3, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene tweeted: “Hurricanes do not discriminate. And neither should the federal government giving aid to people suffering from the devastation of Hurricane Ian. Is your husband’s life worth less bc he’s white?”

Both the FEMA administrator and the White House press secretary said that hurricane aid would be distributed based on need and help everyone who needs it.

“I was on the ground Friday and Saturday, and I committed to the governor then that we are going to provide assistance to all Floridians because we know that there are people that are just completely devastated from the storm. We are going to be there to support everybody that needs help,” said FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell, who appeared on “Face the Nation” shortly after Scott.

At a press briefing on Oct. 3, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre was asked about Republican claims that Harris had said “people of color will get an advantage of some kind with the rebuilding efforts.” Jean-Pierre said the administration is “committed to quickly getting resources to all communities impacted,” insisting Harris’ remarks have been distorted.

Jean-Pierre, Oct. 3: So that is not what the vice president said. The vice president was clearly talking about long-term investment, not FEMA aid, for hurricane response efforts.

The vice president and the president have been clear that the federal government has been and will continue to be there for all Americans recovering from these devastating storms, as we’re seeing the president and the first lady do today and as we’ll see them do, clearly, in Florida on Wednesday.

We are committed to quickly getting resources to all communities impacted, period, full stop. But we also know that some people, particularly in lower-income communities, have a hard time accessing that help. That’s why this administration has also made it a priority to remove barriers and ensure that everyone, regardless of their ZIP Code, can access federal resources. And that’s what she was talking about.

Harris made her remarks during an interview with Chopra at a Democratic National Committee forum on women’s leadership.

Chopra, who is from India, brought up Hurricane Ian in the context of the need for a global response to climate change and the need to help “the poorest countries [that] are affected the most.” It was a long, multiprong question that got an even longer response.

Here’s the exchange with Harris that caused the kerfuffle.

Chopra, Sept. 30: So just talking about a point that I am very concerned about, and I — as I’m sure so is this room: You and the administration obviously are working around the clock right now to support relief efforts in Florida and to prepare citizens as Hurricane Ian now is closing in on South Carolina.

So, extreme weather conditions like this are becoming obviously more frequent and more severe. And I wanted to acknowledge the administration for passing the biggest climate legislation – legislation in history earlier this year because it is a fact that America’s leadership sets an example to other major economies around the world, which are truly dragging their feet when it comes to doing their bit.

So can you talk just a little bit about the relief efforts, obviously, of Hurricane Ian and what the administration has been doing to address the climate crisis in the states?

But — and just a little follow up, because this is important to me: We consider the global implications of emissions, right? The poorest countries are affected the most.

Harris: Yeah.

Chopra: They contributed the least and are affected the most. So how should voters in the U.S. feel about the administration’s long-term goals when it comes to being an international influencer on this topic?

Harris: I’m going to unpack that question.

Chopra: I’m going to ask you packed and loaded questions because I’ve been given a little bit of time.

Harris: So, first of all, again, thanks to the leadership in this room, which were part of the propelling force in the 2020 election so that we could actually be in office — because one of the requests — dare I say, “demands” — of this group was, “Do something about the climate crisis.”  And so, we were able to be elected. Thank you, everyone here.

And then have the … $370 billion in the Inflation Reduction Act dedicated to address the climate crisis — not only because it is a crisis, as it evident — as evidenced, as you have mentioned by Ian, by the wildfires happening in California, the floods, the hurricanes, but also because of America’s leadership and what it should be globally on this issue. And so that has happened, and it will propel a lot of good work.

The crisis is real, and the clock is ticking. And the urgency with which we must act is without any question.

And the way that we think of it and the way I think of it is both in terms of the human toll and — I know we are all thinking about the families in Florida, in Puerto Rico with Fiona — and what we need to do to help them in terms of an immediate response and aid, but also what we need to do to help restore communities and build communities back up in a way that they can be resilient — not to mention, adapt — to these extreme weather conditions, which are part of the future.

On the point that you made about disparities: You know, when I was — back when I was District Attorney of San Francisco — I was elected in 2003 — I started one of the first environmental justice units of any DA’s office in the country focused on this issue. And in particular on the disparities, as you have described rightly, which is that it is our lowest income communities and our communities of color that are most impacted by these extreme conditions and impacted by issues that are not of their own making. And so, when —

Chopra: And women.

Harris: Absolutely. And so, we have to address this in a way that is about giving resources based on equity, understanding that we fight for equality, but we also need to fight for equity; understanding that not everyone starts out at the same place. And if we want people to be in an equal place, sometimes we have to take into account those disparities and do that work.

But also, I will say, as a former prosecutor, part of this issue also has to be about enforcement and, where appropriate, making sure that the bad actors pay a price for what they do that is directly harming communities in terms of their health and wellbeing.

So, when we think about policy then, there are many aspects to it, including something that the president and our administration and I are very excited about, which is the opportunity that moving towards a clean energy environment and industry — what it will do in terms of job creation and building up our economy. It’s tremendous.

So, there are many benefits to this work.

And to your point about the global piece: Among the leaders that I have been meeting and convening — just recently, in fact — and now this was, I think, the third time — I convened the presidents and prime ministers of the Caribbean countries; there’s an organization called CARICOM.  And I convened them just a couple weeks ago.  And the consistent discussion we are having is exactly your point, which is: We are one of the greatest emitters in the world and the Caribbean countries, for example, are paying the biggest price. They are some of the lowest emitters, yet the erosion that they are experiencing to their island nations is profound.

And when you combine that with the fact that nations like that — their biggest source for their GDP is tourism, and what the climate crisis and extreme weather conditions do in terms of then plummeting their incoming resources, not to mention what we are expecting all good nations to do to contribute to mitigation and adaptation.

So there is still a lot of work to be done to recognize the equities. And I will say, for us, as the United States, to own responsibility for what we rightly should do to recognize these disparities and contribute in a way that is fair with the goal of equitable priorities.

Nandita Bose, the White House correspondent for Reuters and the only print reporter at the event, said in a Twitter thread that Harris’ remarks were being “deliberately distorted.”

“So I was the only WH pool print reporter in the room on Friday at the DNC Women’s Leadership Forum and heard the remarks from @VP on climate change and Hurricane Ian, which I see are being deliberately distorted,” Bose tweeted.

Readers can judge for themselves what Harris meant to say. What the vice president talked about, though, was the “work to be done to recognize the equities” needed to help low-emitting, poorer countries often bearing the brunt of the consequences of climate change, and the need in the U.S. to make sure that low-income communities and communities of color are not left behind in long-term mitigation plans.

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