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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release August 11, 1999
                           PRESS BRIEFING BY

                           The Briefing Room

2:28 P.M. EDT

MR. TOIV: Let me introduce Secretary Dan Glickman -- it is Secretary Glickman, but also Deputy Secretary Rominger, I believe is here; and Commerce Secretary Daley, and our Deputy Chief of Staff Maria Echaveste, who I believe is going to kick this off. Thank you

Q Barry, before you go, will they come to stakeout from that event?

MR. TOIV: We don't know. I don't know if any of them are going to go to the stakeout.

MS. ECHAVESTE: Okay, let's get started. My name is Maria Echaveste, Deputy Chief of Staff. And we just wanted to report to you on our White House Drought Task Force that the President established late last week.

We had our first meeting on Monday. We have a number of agencies involved -- a core group of agencies with Department of Agriculture and Commerce as sort of key players. And the purpose of this task force is making sure that the federal government is responding in the most effective and efficient manner to the number of droughts that are happening across the country.

The first thing we did was to begin to catalogue the efforts we've made to date in terms of both the Department of Ag response, also included HHS, in terms of LI-HEAP monies that had been previously announced; SBA in terms of emergency loans. We also identified some potential additional federal responses that will help communities plan for and respond to breaking emergencies, and you're going to hear about a couple of those new tools that I think are going to be very interesting for folks around the country.

We also began work on assessing the impact of these droughts, so that we can develop federal response, identify further needs. You're going to hear a little bit about that from Secretary Glickman.

And, lastly, the task force will coordinate our federal input into the National Drought Policy Commission, which was created by Congress in 1998, had its first meeting in July of this year, and it's tasked with developing a set of recommendations to make sure that federal, state and local responses are coordinated. Because, as one of the experts has said, droughts have been with us, will be with us; what we need to be sure is that we're prepared for these emergencies in as many different ways as possible.

So with that, I'd like to hand this over to Secretary Daley, who will talk about some of our new tools.

SECRETARY DALEY: Thanks very much, Maria. As we all know, this has been an extremely difficult period for many parts of the country, due to this crippling drought -- New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Rhode Island are experiencing the driest growing season ever, and obviously other parts of the country are also hurting.

Our forecasters at the National Weather Service have been tracking this drought for some time. They tell us that it will likely continue into the fall, winter and possibly extend into next year. In a minute, General Jack Kelly, who is the Director of the Weather Service, will provide additional details about the forecast.

Secretary Glickman and I, of course, share the President's concern about the impact of this drought, particularly on the American farmers and the small businesses that are being affected by this drought. As we consider the possibility of an extended drought, we must look at the costs compared to other weather disasters. At this point, no one can quite say the costs of this drought. But the drought of 1988 was the most costly weather disaster in recent history, estimated to be $40 billion. And if you compare that with Hurricane Andrew, which was a cost of about $33 billion, it is substantially more.

The average cost of drought is over $6 billion, which is more than twice that of flood costs, and these are only the economic costs. Droughts, of course, impact people's lives and the environment, which is often very difficult to measure.

In a few minutes, Secretary Glickman will tell us about the steps that Ag is taking. I'm announcing two initiatives for the Department of Commerce. At this point, we cannot promise rain, but we can promise action to help these communities prepare for the drought and also the heat.

First, starting today, we are posting on the Internet weekly assessments of potential heat threats. This information integrates for the first time heat assessments with other weather-related threats. The new threat assessment maps will allow all of us to take precautionary steps to lessen the impact of extreme heat.

Second, in cooperation with the Department of Agriculture, we're launching a new drought monitoring and forecast service that maps the status of droughts nationwide and forecast whether they will strengthen or they will weaken.

The drought monitor is also available on the Internet. The way we know this has been a very effective way to get our word out. Since 1997, our weather information site has received over a billion hits. In addition to these immediate measures, we have put on a fast track research that will allow us to forecast the possibility of heatwaves two weeks in advance.

This valuable information will be available to communities by next summer. These actions reflect the continuing commitment of this administration in investing in science and putting the results in concrete work for Americans. With tools such as the ones we are announcing today, communities will be in a better position to plan economic and other planning decisions. I've had the pleasure of working with Jack Kelly for the last year and a half. He has been instrumental in keeping our investments in a new, modern weather service on track.


GENERAL KELLY: Thank you, Mr. Secretary, for those nice remarks. Over the last 10 years, this country has invested over $4.5 billion in modernizing the National Weather Service. And while that activity was going on, researchers both in the academic world and in the government -- particularly the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration -- have been making advances in the ability to predict the climate. And so what we're going to talk about today are some new products that we are able to release to the public, thanks to the work of those researchers.

First, I'd like to talk about the drought and explain what's going on across the country, and then go out on a limb and tell you what we think is going to happen the next couple of seasons with the drought, and then talk about another new product the Secretary talked about.

First of all, working with the Department of Agriculture and talking to agriculture interests, water management interests and those individuals who fight wildland fires, a consistent request we've had from them is, could we produce a national product that shows the extent of drought, the intensity of drought, the type of drought and what we think is going to happen over the next two weeks with drought. And this graphic in front of you is that particular product. It's called the drought monitor. It is both an assessment and a forecast, and what it shows is that the Northeast is in the grips of a drought of historic proportions. We've been keeping records for 105 years.

New Jersey, Rhode Island, Delaware and Maryland, this is the driest in those 105 years if you look at the rainfall that essentially hasn't fallen from April to now. You will also see numbers on there. Those numbers are designed to identify the intensity of the drought. We'll characterize it as extreme in the mid-Atlantic states. And you'll also see the words ag, fire and hydro to indicate that drought can take many different manifestations. In the Northeast, we're having an agricultural drought. It's impacting crops. We're having a hydrological drought. It's impacting stream flows, river levels.

If you go further to the west out in Nevada, you'll see the word "fire." There is dry area out there. Earlier this week, 1 million acres burned in Nevada, and that is, in part, a reflection of the dry conditions that are out there.

Across the country, there are different pockets that are experiencing drought conditions, and if you look far to the west, it does not get a lot of press, but Hawaii has experienced a drought. Last year, they averaged about three inches of rainfall; the normal is 22 inches. And they've been running behind this year. So Hawaii is having drought problems.

We put pluses and minuses, which you don't see on there, which indicates whether we expect a drought to get worse or expect a drought to get better in the next two weeks -- and the answer is, we expect kind of neutral conditions. The drought is going to stay.

What do we expect to happen? In the Northeast, at least for the next two seasons, we expect the drought to persist, unless we get some tropical storms to come up here. We have a deficit of between 8 and 18 inches of rain. It's going to take a couple of tropical storms to do that -- I wouldn't bet any money on that happening. Tropical storms rarely hit the northeast, we get some rain from them, but the last storm that really impacted us was over three years ago.

We expect the drought to get worse in the Southeast over the winter, a little better out west; and we look for some relief in Hawaii over the summer. So, for the Northeast, we expect the drought, by and large, to persist through the fall and into the winter. That doesn't mean we won't get rain, it just means we won't pick up the deficit of over a foot of rain that we have to pick up.

And the next new product that we can put out is essentially a two-week forecast of hazardous weather across the United States. We've been working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Department of Agriculture, water management communities on this product for the last two years. And what it's designed to do is give emergency managers an outlook of where above normal, hazardous weather will occur over the next two weeks. This product will be put out every week, updated as necessary.

MS. ECHAVESTE: Now we'll have Secretary Glickman talk about what we're doing to respond to those in need.

SECRETARY GLICKMAN: Thank you, Secretary Daley, General. First of all, let me say that I just returned this morning from Connecticut, where I viewed drought damage near the New Haven area. Teams from USDA have been in Connecticut, Ohio, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York, and I was in New York yesterday.

So the whole idea is to get a personal view, as well as having the USDA teams out there. That's the only way we can really assess damage and assess the needs for USDA assistance, emergency loan assistance and congressional assistance. If you can see from these charts, it shows some of the same patterns that General Kelly just talked about, but I'd like to mention just two other things.

One is, the drought is occurring at a time when we have had adverse farm prices. Historically, when drought is there, farm prices are up, because it seems to affect supply and demand. It is not happening in this case. It may ultimately happen, depending on whether the drought moves west. But the reason for that is because the weather has been generally good in the heartland areas where large amounts of row crops are grown. And we've also had four years of worldwide record crop production. So, overall, the world crop production is pretty good. And, of course, we've had weak demand because of the Asian situation.

So we haven't had the elasticity in price that you would ordinarily expect. So a lot of producers, when they would ordinarily get droughted out, as they refer to it, they'd see higher prices and they might get some additional benefit this way. That is not happening.

Second of all, while the Northeast and the Mid-Atlantic are not generally referred to as "farm states," I'm told that there are about 225,000 farmers in the mid-Atlantic and the Northeast, which means about 15-18 percent of all full-time farmers in the United States are in this part of the country, and they are largely small and medium-sized producers. And therefore, they are ones that would be more affected by repeated natural disaster assistance.

And because of the history of programs -- farm programs and the like, these are often producers, many of whom are not part of traditional farm programs. So we are seeing -- they are obviously going to have a difficult time coping.

We've acted quickly on governor's requests for disaster declaration. The entire state of West Virginia, as well as several individual counties around the country have been designated disaster areas -- contiguous counties to the state have been designated. All of New Jersey and virtually all counties in Ohio have been made eligible for the statutory disaster assistance, and still more counties in several others states qualify for assistance.

Today we're announcing more designations -- disaster designations. The entire state of Connecticut, 19 counties in Maryland, six more counties in New York, five counties in Virginia, and one county in New Mexico. Farmers on these designated disaster areas are able to take advantage of emergency, low-interest loans of up to $500,000 to help cover their actual losses.

In addition, through the emergency conservation program, we've also made available nearly $5 million in cost-share funding to 11 states. That money can be used to help dig wells, install pipes, restore irrigation structures, and more. Crop insurance does help farmers recover losses from natural disasters. Last year, we paid out $1.5 billion on more than 200,000 crop insurance policies. The overwhelming majority were paid out because of drought. And the problem we see in this case is we don't have quite as many farmers with crop insurance policies as you might have seen in Texas and the northern plains area, because they had been used to buying these policies many years.

For crops that can't be covered by crop insurance, we offer payments under the Non-Insured Crop Disaster Assistance Program. And for several counties in Ohio and Pennsylvania, we have approved emergency haying and grazing on certain reserved areas of land under conservation programs; and counties in North Dakota and Minnesota have been approved; and in Maryland, for emergency haying.

Maria talked about the National Drought Policy Task Force that's coordinating these efforts, largely between Ag and the Commerce Department, but the other federal agencies, as well. My Deputy Secretary, Rich Rominger, is here. He's been engaged with the National Drought Policy Commission, which actually was created last year, largely through the efforts of Senator Domenici, of New Mexico. And we are in the process of mapping a long-term drought strategy that focuses on prevention and preparation. That started meeting seriously before this drought started, but one of its goals is to advise us on ways to improve the statutory scheme to help farmers and non-farmers alike deal with droughts and natural disasters.

Thank you very much.

MS. ECHAVESTE: If anybody has any questions.

Q Does global warming have anything to do with this?

GENERAL KELLY: It's difficult to relate a particular climate event to global warming; but if the atmosphere warms, you would expect more heat waves and longer periods of drought. But relating this to global warming, I'll get you an equal number of scientists who will argue both sides of that.

Q Is there any reason besides little rain or, I mean --

GENERAL KELLY: I mean, we can go through all kinds of scientific reasons, but I think the thing we need to understand is that the United States routinely suffers drought. And I'm not trying to be insensitive, but there's a lot of focus right now, it's a terrible drought in the mid-Atlantic states. But that tends to be why there's a lot of focus. Last year there was a big drought in Texas. We have droughts -- at least 15 percent of this country in the summertime is impacted by droughts in any given year.

Q Have you ever known it to go through the fall and through the winter?

GENERAL KELLY: Yes, 1988 we had a drought, and in the '60s we had a drought in the Northeast like this. Clearly, this is the worst on record for the those states, for this part of the country.

Q Mr. Secretary, how is aid going to be -- in areas where disaster is declared, how is the aid going to be handled to farmers who are seeking it and need it?

SECRETARY GLICKMAN: What happens is, is that once an area is designated a disaster area, then the statute kicks in and farmers basically have to come in and show the nature of their loss -- and it has to be of a certain level in order to qualify for their loans. Unfortunately, under the statute, to prove your loss, you usually -- usually, not always -- have to wait through the harvest period, in order to prove that loss.

The statute doesn't give USDA the same authority as, for example, SBA does, where they're able to give up-front lending assistance. I do not have that authority. Of course --

Q Would you like that authority?

SECRETARY GLICKMAN: That's one of the things the National Drought Policy Commission is looking at, is to whether we should make more rational, across the board, these various drought authorities. I would say that these issues will probably be on the plate as Congress returns in September, as they deal with the drought emergency package.

Q Secretary Glickman, how did you decide which states to designate entirely as disaster areas, and which -- Maryland, I mean, it seems every bit of Maryland is affected.

SECRETARY GLICKMAN: Well, actually what happens is the governor's declaration usually triggers where we look to. And then we do an independent analysis based upon the nature of the loss in each county. It turns out some of the counties on the Eastern shore have received more rainfall. And a lot of it has to do with subsoil moisture, and crop maturities, those kinds of issues. So there is a methodology for determining this.

Q Do you see any kind of compromise shaping up to get the emergency farm legislation through Congress?

SECRETARY GLICKMAN: I hope so. I mean --

Q So in what areas?

SECRETARY GLICKMAN: First of all, one of the reasons we're out going around the country is to do an assessment. So we have to basically be in the position of letting the Congress know where and how much the damage is, what the needs in terms of the disaster are. And that is what we're doing now, so that when we come back, we are able to collaborate with them on that particular point.

MS. ECHAVESTE: The only thing I would add is, I think the President has made clear that it isn't a question of just money. It is a question of what structural reforms can be made to ensure that there is a farm safety net to help this industry as disasters occur.

SECRETARY GLICKMAN: We do want to make sure that the package that ultimately leaves the Congress contains disaster and drought relief. It cannot engage in its form without having that a part of it. Right now it does not have that as a part of it.

MS. ECHAVESTE: One last question.

Q Can I ask you -- Maryland has taken very tough conservation measures, and they seem to be helping. According to the data you told us, this drought is going to go on until probably next year. Could the federal government also start some type of publicity or conservation campaign so people start conserving because it works, and certainly any water being wasted now will be necessary in the future?

MS. ECHAVESTE: Well, I think one of the reasons for sort of doing a briefing like this is to get the word out with scientific information that says the drought will continue. And ultimately I think elected officials in Maryland and other states are doing their very best to communicate to the public what they need to do to help conserve water and what ways they can prepare, and we hope to continue that effort.

Thank you.

END 2:52 P.M. EDT