Transcript: Leadership During Crisis: Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg

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MS. OSAKA: Hi, everyone, and welcome to Washington Post Live. I’m Shannon Osaka, and I’m the climate zeitgeist reporter for The Washington Post. And today I am joined by Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, whose city has been inundated by floods, extreme rain, and power outages in the last few weeks.

Mayor Steinberg, thank you so much for joining us.

MAYOR STEINBERG: Shannon, thank you for having me. Really appreciate it.

MS. OSAKA: So, I can see from your background that it looks like you’re having a little bit of a reprieve finally from some of the intense rain and atmospheric rivers. Talk about what is going on on the ground right now in Sacramento.

MAYOR STEINBERG: Well, we’re finally getting a reprieve, but we don’t know for how long, and that’s really been the problem. It’s not been so severe. It’s that they have been so frequent, and the time in between the atmospheric river storms have been so short that there has been very little time to recover. So, we’ve had, you know, a thousand trees down. We’ve had hundreds of storm drains clogged. We’ve had some street flooding, although in our city as opposed to the south part of the county. Our levee system has held up really well as a result of decades of federal, state, and local investment in flood protection. And so, we just hope that we get a reprieve so that we can clean up the city.

It looks a little like a tree carnage to be honest with you. You go out into the parks–Land Park, one of our quintessential beautiful regional parks, they’re just trees all over. And so, it’s going to take some time to recover. And of course, the loss of life is the most tragic to unsheltered people. We’ve lost five people or so in the county as a whole. And you know, one life is too many. But it’s a resilient city. It’s a resilient county. It’s a resilient region, always has been. And we will come back. It’s just we’re living in extraordinary times, which I know is the topic of our conversation today.

MS. OSAKA: Absolutely. And you know, the media has a tendency to focus really closely on these storms and events when they’re happening and then move on. But at the same time, I mean, it’s a lengthy recovery process. Lives have been lost. Property has been damaged. How long do you expect this recovery to take?

MAYOR STEINBERG: I mean, I think it’s going to take weeks, if not months. I know that–I’m really proud of our public employees, I’ve got to say. Here at the city, the county, the Municipal Utility District, I mean, these are people that don’t get a lot of attention and certainly press, but they deserve it. I mean, 12-hour shifts, sometimes longer, people who are just working around the clock to make sure that people are safe, and that the city gets cleaned up sooner than later. But it’s going to take weeks, if not months, undoubtedly.

But look, I have perspective. The loss of life is the worst thing, obviously. But we can recover from damage. And frankly, in our city, because as I said earlier, we have spent so many years preparing for water events, for flood events. Our levee system has held. Our federal and state reservoir system has held. The rivers are high, but they haven’t been so high that we have flooded. And you know, so the word for 2023 is “gratitude,” and I think we have a lot to be grateful for here in our city.

MS. OSAKA: That’s great to hear. And how are you looking–I mean, looking forward, we’re expecting more and more of these types of events. Obviously, there’s climate change, and that’s playing a big role here. How do you ensure that the recovery is sustainable, that people are not building homes in flood-prone areas? How are you looking to ensure that going forward?

MAYOR STEINBERG: Well, I mean, let’s put this in perspective, because I think it’s really, really important for the people watching this to know that in California, between 2000 and 2021, we had the driest 21 years in a thousand years. And then, in late 2022–and of course, January of 2023–we have had this incredible deluge of water and wind and storms. And so, the climate deniers, of course, are no longer really in vogue, but there still in this nation, I think, is not a realization that climate is at the root; it must be at the root of so many of these extreme weather events. You know, in the 1980s, we went 82 days, on average, between billion-dollar, so called billion-dollar catastrophes. This year, and in 2021-2022, the average distance between billion-dollar catastrophes is 18 days. The weather and the climate is at the heart of it.

And so, what do we do to prepare? Well, certainly we’re lucky to be part of a state, California, that has made unprecedented investments in ensuring our climate future, or at least doing everything we can to avoid catastrophe, whether it’s 100 percent renewable energy portfolio standard by 2045, 90 percent by 2035, whether it’s banning gas powered cars by 2035, whether it’s our ever-increasing investments in storage, which we need to store energy during the weak time so that when–or during the strong times, excuse me–so that when we’re low on energy, we have something to make up for it. Stability is really, really important.

And so, we’re on the forefront. I mean, the governor’s budget last year had over $50 billion worth of investment in climate change. And that’s in addition to improving the condition of our levees. Here at a city level, you know, we’re not the state government. But I’ll tell you one thing that we are focused on like a laser, and that is infill housing. I mean, this is what cities can do. We’ve got to build more housing, and we have to build it in ways that are more conducive and friendly to the climate. And that’s a big part of what we focus on here in the capital city.

MS. OSAKA: I want to come back to the housing question a little bit later. But you know, you’re talking about this sort of drought-to-deluge shift. And I grew up in California. I mean, most of the time growing up, we were in a drought state. I mean, was there an aspect here where people were a little bit caught off guard or unprepared because we’d gotten used to these drought states for so many years, and then switching over to this flood state?

MAYOR STEINBERG: Well, maybe it was a surprise to people, but I don’t think we were unprepared. I think that’s different. And I know the topic here is leadership, and you know, I happen to be the mayor of this city. But it’s the leadership from so many quarters, from our federal congressional delegation. Congresswoman Matsui has fought for flood protection for decades here for the capital city. It’s our local flood control agency. It’s the state government. I was the president of the State Senate for six years, and we focused a huge amount on water and on flood protection. And it’s the local voters who have consistently assessed themselves to make sure that we are paying for flood protection.

Sacramento is on a flood–is in a floodplain. We’re at the confluence of two rivers, the American and Sacramento Rivers. And as a result, we’ve known for a long time that that 1-in-50 or that 1-in-100 storm is going to come. Now I’m not sure that this was it. But our levees held, and that–I’m really grateful for that.

So, what do we do to prepare? We continue to be aggressive about a climate-friendly future. We just passed a major electrification ordinance in this city. All new city buildings, and all new private buildings are going to have to be all electric. It’s been controversial, especially in some quarters of the restaurant industry where gas cooking has been the culture and tradition. But we’ve got to move forward. And we have to be a leader as the capital city of California.

MS. OSAKA: Yeah, and we’ve seen that sort of gas stove debate kind of thrust into the national eye in the last week, which has been very interesting. I’m curious, you know, you’re talking about leadership and the leadership that Sacramento has taken. Are there things that you are looking for from Governor Newsom, or from President Biden, in terms of preparedness going forward?

MAYOR STEINBERG: Well, the beauty of the relationships that we have with the state administration, with Governor Newsom, he’s a friend and an ally. Vice President Harris was my colleague in state government for years. They’ve reached out directly and have offered anything that we need. And certainly, the federal share under Build Back Better, the resources available through FEMA, the offers to help us with the cleanup, they are very responsive to everything that that we need.

But really, it’s–this is a human endeavor to clean up. It’s really our public workforce. It’s our communities that are going to clean up the city. And then, you know, you can’t prevent–there’s the thing–we cannot prevent the next climate event, the next deluge. But we can prepare and continue to make sure that not just our generation, but future generations maybe have a different future, because we have achieved carbon neutrality and we’ve began to turn the tide in terms of the climate crisis, not just in Sacramento, but in California, in the country, and in the world.

MS. OSAKA: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think one thing, again, from growing up in California, there is this sense that, you know, all of these weather events are coming more and more frequently, more and more quickly. And so, people are facing wildfires, they’re facing droughts, they’re facing floods. I mean, what do you say to your constituents about–who are maybe concerned that living in California is just becoming an increasingly dangerous proposition?

MAYOR STEINBERG: Well, I’d say that what’s happening in California is happening in different ways throughout the country. I mean, you think about what people on the East Coast and the Midwest lived through with winters. You think about hurricanes, you think about tornadoes, what goes on in the Southwest of this country. And so, we are not alone. And California remains a beautiful place to live. It still is the center of the greatest university system in the world. It is still a land of opportunity. It’s a growing state. And so, what comes with–what comes with that are challenges, you know?

But here’s what I say, that what we can control, we have an obligation to control. That what we can prevent, we have an obligation to prevent. That that we have an obligation to prepare for, we must prepare. And that’s what really this is about. I mean, California is leading the nation and the world when it comes to climate. You look at the AB 32 back from the old days in 2004, where we set a standard to reduce greenhouse gas emissions below 1990 levels dramatically. We’re not there yet, but we’re getting there. The 100 percent renewable portfolio energy standard, banning gas-powered cars and forcing this transition to electric–18 percent of car sales in California last year were electric cars. Now, I guarantee you that number is going to increase, and it’s going to increase more dramatically in California because of the incentives and because of the investments. That’s all we can do. You control what you control. And what you can’t control, you just work together and stick together.

MS. OSAKA: Absolutely, yeah. And it has been amazing seeing the shift to electric vehicles in California that started slow and then now it’s really taken off.

When thinking about Sacramento, I mean, you talked about that new building electrification plan. What else in Sacramento doing as a city to mitigate climate change and to cut its own carbon footprint?

MAYOR STEINBERG: Well, we need to do a lot more. That’s for sure. We need to build out our public transit system in a smart way. And maybe most importantly, Sacramento is the center of what I call the SB 375 debate. Now, the listeners may not know about that across the country, but I say with pride of authorship, that was the bill I authored when I was a state senator back in 2006-2007. It sets the national standard for improving the climate through better land use, transportation, and housing policies.

All 17 regions of the state, including the Sacramento region, have committed to significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by the way we grow. In other words, we used to call it smart growth. How do we incentivize growth in ways that people can bike or walk from where they live to where they work to where they play

And one of the great and exciting things about Sacramento, as I said at the beginning, is that we are focused on infill housing like never before. You know, the climate crisis obviously is existential. But I will tell you, we have an equally compelling crisis in California and in Sacramento, and that is housing and affordable housing–and of course, its most severe consequence, and that is unsheltered homelessness.

We are on a drive to build more affordable housing. And as we do so, we’re trying to build it closer to the city center, closer to the transit lines, closer to where people work, because the downtown is still the center of the state workforce and the local workforce. And this is our drive, and it’s our drive not just in the city, but in the region and also throughout California because, ultimately, unless this next generation chooses to live differently, to conserve the land, to not use single occupancy vehicles, and if they do, to buy and use electric, and to change the lifestyle, then it is going to be hard to arrest the crisis that we are living through today. But we have that power in our hands. And as a city, it’s about 375 and it’s about building more affordable housing, especially closer to the city center.

MS. OSAKA: I’m so glad you mentioned the housing crisis and the importance of building new housing. I mean during the flooding; I think two houseless people were killed in Sacramento. And I mean, it just shines a light on how, you know, homeless people are much more exposed to extreme weather and these natural disasters. What is the best way–what ways are you looking at to try to protect homeless people from natural disasters, in addition to trying to build out that housing and, you know, address the homelessness issue more generally?

MAYOR STEINBERG: Well, we’ve opened a number of respite centers with the County of Sacramento throughout the storm. And you know, the beds were there, but we were under capacity most nights. And what does that tell us? It tells us that a lot of people are afraid to come in, even in severe weather, because they have to then leave their possessions, and there’s a lot of trauma and fear in coming in.

And so, here’s what’s happening in Sacramento that I think is unique and has the potential for state and national impact. The City and County of Sacramento at the end of 2022 entered into a legally binding partnership agreement. Under that agreement, the county and the city have obligated themselves to actually do more extensive outreach engagement in the numerous tent encampments in the city. We’re hiring 50 new workers together, the city, county, and the health plans. And our obligation is to–is to get into those tent encampments in a–in a humane way, focusing on the needs of the people–20 encampments a month, once we get to scale. That’s over 200 a year if we do it right. And then, the county is obligated itself–I think the first in the nation–to do whatever it takes—medically, mental health wise, substance abuse wise, shelter and housing wise–to bring people off the streets.

What we’re creating here in California and in Sacramento is close–tantamount to a right to mental health care, a right to shelter, a right to housing, if it’s done right. And implementation is everything. And we can’t take that for granted. We have a chance to make a real difference, because no one should be outside.

I mean, I come from, you know, the progressive part of the political spectrum. I believe in a right to shelter, a right to housing, and a right to care. And at the same time, I believe that people should be obligated to come in doors. But it’s on us first to provide that capacity and those opportunities and to get out in those encampments. Because people are not going to come in by themselves. When you’re–when you’re sick, when you’re traumatized, when you’ve been out there for a long time, you’re not walking into a clinic. We’ve got to get out there and meet people where they are. And that’s what we intend to do. But implementation is everything.

MS. OSAKA: Thanks so much, Mayor Steinberg. I mean, it’ll be really interesting to see how that program works and whether it’s effective in getting these people into the help and into the shelter that they need.

Unfortunately, we are out of time, but it has been so wonderful talking to you. So, we’ll have to leave it there. But thank you so much for joining us.

MAYOR STEINBERG: Thank you for having me. Really appreciate it. And you know, good thoughts for everybody in Sacramento and throughout the country living through these weather events and tough times. Thank you.

MS. OSAKA: And thanks to all of you for joining our conversation. To check out more of our upcoming programming, check out I’m Shannon Osaka, and I’m the climate zeitgeist reporter for The Washington Post. Thanks so much for joining us.

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