Democrats question the Schwarzenegger administration over heat-wave response
SACRAMENTO (AP) – Democratic lawmakers criticized Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s response to last month’s heat wave Wednesday during a hearing that administration officials labeled a blatant political attack intended only to undermine the governor during an election year.
Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter, said Schwarzenegger should have declared a state of emergency during the nearly two-week heat wave in late July that led to as many as 164 deaths statewide.
“We didn’t recognize the seriousness of the crisis,” said Florez, who called the hearing as chairman of the Senate Governmental Organization Committee. “We were caught flat-footed.”
He said the governor could have closed nonessential state buildings or ordered prisons to run on generators to save energy. Florez also said state workers could have been ordered to go door-to-door to check on elderly and poor residents, who accounted for most of the deaths.
Administration officials testified that an emergency declaration would not have helped because the state already was doing everything it could. Further, they said no local officials asked for such a declaration.
“We were ready to call the National Guard,” said Ann Boynton, undersecretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.
State agencies issued hundreds of heat and power warnings, cut energy use, opened cooling centers and helped monitor 2,200 nursing homes, officials said.
Eight counties declared local emergencies seeking federal reimbursement for an estimated $1 billion in agricultural losses, but none sought specific state help that wasn’t already being provided, said Paul Jacks, deputy director of the Response and Recovery Division of the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.
“We are not aware of anything substantive that would have resulted from that declaration that we did not do,” Jacks testified. “We have not been made aware of any unmet needs.”
Schwarzenegger twice toured the San Joaquin Valley, which suffered most of the deaths and agricultural losses. He also asked the federal government to provide disaster assistance to California farmers and to help poor residents pay their electric bills.
Fresno Mayor Alan Autry defended the administration’s response and said Democratic senators were launching “blatant political attacks.”
“He was not asleep at the wheel,” Autry said of Schwarzenegger. “There was a lot done right.”
Adam Mendelsohn, the governor’s communications director, said the administration is developing a heat-emergency plan based on what officials learned in July.
“Governor Schwarzenegger … will continue to work to protect the Central Valley in the future and would rather see this dialogue turn constructive rather than political,” he said.