Gulf State Governors Plead for More Hurricane Recovery Funds

WASHINGTON, DC, March 7, 2006 (ENS) - Hurricane relief funding already enacted into law amounts to more than $100 billion, the Senate Budget Committee said last week, but it is not enough to fund the recovery and rebuilding from Katrina and Rita, the governors of hurricane-affected states told another Senate panel today. Six months after the disastrous storms devastated four Gulf Coast states, billions of dollars are still needed, the governors said.

President George W. Bush has proposed additional emergency funding of $19.8 billion to support ongoing hurricane recovery efforts. Each governor thanked Congress and the President for the billions provided to date - and asked for more.

Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, a Democrat, urged the U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations to support President George W. Bush's funding request of $1.5 billion for the New Orleans levees and his commitment of $4.2 billion for housing for her state.

Blanco

Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco testifies before the U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations today. (Photo courtesy Office of the Governor)
"The immediate future of our state - and the hundreds of thousands of people who want to return home - is now in the hands of this Congress," she said.

"The Supplemental funding is absolutely essential if we are to construct a road home for hundreds of thousands of our displaced residents. It is our ticket to rebuild, recover, and resume our productive place in our nation's economy," Governor Blanco said. "It enables us to implement our housing plan. We have been waiting for this funding since President Bush's moving speech in Jackson Square in September. Do not make us wait any longer. Please honor his commitment to our people."

The entire Gulf Coast suffered, but Louisiana bore the brunt of the disastrous hurricanes of 2005, the governor said.

"Katrina claimed over 1,100 lives in our state alone. Together, Katrina and Rita displaced more than 780,000 people and destroyed the homes of over 200,000 families. An estimated 81,000 businesses were stilled, and 18,000 of our businesses still have not reopened."

The Louisiana Recovery Authority worked with Chairman Don Powell and the White House to reach a consensus on the data presented to the Senate committee by Governor Blanco, who said, "Chairman Powell subjected us, and our consultants from McKinsey & Company, to a rigorous review that should inspire confidence in our data."

More than 100,000 homeowner properties suffered major damage or were destroyed from storm surges and levee breaks, that left New Orleans underwater for a month, Blanco told the committee, 76 percent of all the Gulf Coast homes destroyed by the floodwaters.

firefighters

These New Orleans Department Fire Fighters are part of a Search and Recovery team going through 9th Ward to recover any human remains still in debris left by Hurricane Katrina. March 6, 2006. (Photo by Marvin Nauman courtesy FEMA)
Nearly 70,000 rental units in Louisiana were rendered uninhabitable, 80 percent of the rental losses from floodwaters across the Gulf Coast region.

With hurricane season less than three months away, Governor Blanco said there is not a minute to waste in putting the designated $1.5 billion to work strengthening the New Orleans levees that protect the city from flooding.

About $2.3 billion in federal funding has been allocated to repair New Orleans's levees, said Marcia Demma, who oversees the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' budget in the region.

By June, the levees are scheduled to be restored to their pre-Katrina strength and by September 2007 they are supposed to meet design standards that were supposed to have been met before Hurricane Katrina - able to withstand a category 3 storm, the strength of Katrina upon landfall.

Demma estimated it would take about $15 billion to strengthen the levees enough to protect New Orleans from a category 5 storm.

Louisiana has improved the levee system by consolidating a 100 year old system of levee boards with professional oversight and maintenance, and creating the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority to provide statewide oversight of levee boards and enforce a master plan for coastal and flood protection, Blanco explained.

levee

A section of the levee protecting New Orleans' 9th Ward. The levees were breached in nine places and overtopped with water in the days following Hurricane Katrina. (Photo courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)
"I have faith that these reforms will give Congress the assurances needed to make a lasting investment in a reliable levee system," she said.

"I urge Congress to avoid the temptation to chip away at the promised funding and divert it to other states," Blanco pleaded, while saying in the same breath, "I do not for a minute seek to minimize the needs of Mississippi, Alabama or Texas. My heart goes out to our neighbors."

Neighboring Texas Governor Rick Perry, a Republican, told the committee that the federal government has short-changed his "Good Samaritan" state.

"When Governor Blanco called me on August 31st, I didnít ask her how long her citizens would be displaced, or what the plan was to get them back home. I simply said, 'Send them here,' Perry told the senators.

Texas conducted "the most massive domestic relief effort ever undertaken on U.S. soil," Perry said. "And even if Washington hadnít promised us one cent, we would have done what we did because you canít put a price on lives saved."

But Washington did make a lot of promises, Governor Perry reminded the committee, saying, "If Washington gives short shrift to a Good Samaritan state like Texas, it will send chills down the spine of any governor asked to be a good neighbor in the future."

Texas is still hosting 640,000 hurricane victims, putting "great strain" on hospitals, schools and social services, the governor said.

In the midst of Texans' efforts to assist Hurricane Katrina survivors, Hurricane Rita hit their state, and Governor Perry says that is what is being forgotten. "Rita seems to be the storm that no one in Washington wants to remember," he said. But let me be clear: itís a storm that continues to take a great toll.

house

Many homes in southeast Texas were crushed by trees felled by Hurricane Rita's high winds. Mauriceville, Texas, October 2, 2005 (Photo by Bob McMillan courtesy FEMA)
Some 75,000 Texas homes were destroyed or damaged, about half of them uninsured, and electric utility infrastructure across the region was crippled.

"Iím sure none of us here would like to do what local leaders in Southeast Texas have had to do, which is explain to Texas victims of Rita why they have a separate food stamp line that provides less food for their families than the victims of Katrina. Or for that matter, why the federal government will pay for only 75 percent of their debris removal costs, but 100 percent for victims of the very same storm living a few miles away in Louisiana."

"These discrepancies cannot be explained, because they do not make sense. Mother Nature treated Rita victims on both sides of the border with equal wrath, and the federal government should treat Rita victims in both states with equal compassion and equal assistance," the governor said.

Governor Perry is requesting $2 billion, a sum he called "conservative, critically needed and carefully documented" in the "Texas Rebounds" report he handed out to the committee.

It includes $322 million to rebuild damaged homes, $338 million to educate tens of thousands of dislocated children, and nearly $500 million to restore utilities, rebuild critical government infrastructure and repair first responder equipment.

Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, a Republican, urged the panel to meet the President's request for an additional $4.8 billion to replenish FEMAís Disaster Relief Fund; $1.3 billion for the Small Business Administrationís Disaster Loan Program; and $300 million for the Community Disaster Loan Program.

The Disaster Relief Fund contains the financial resources to pay for the individual and public assistance programs the federal government is required to provide under the Stafford Act. As of last week, more than $7.7 billion has been allocated to activities in Mississippi out of this fund. Governor Barbour said he expects this amount to increase to about $15-$17 billion.

Nearly 3,500 businesses and 20,000 homeowners in Mississippi have been approved for $1.7 billion in Small Business Administration loans, but the funds are not in place yet. "People are depending on these programs and they need to be funded," said Barbour.

In addition, the Mississippi governor requested financial support for three programs that he has not mentioned before - first, the rebuilding and redevelopment plan of the Port of Gulfport, the entire infrastructure of which was destroyed, and second, the relocation of a coast railroad further inland.

"The third unfunded major program is the environmental restoration and hurricane protection program for coastal ecosystems. Some funding has been provided to begin the restoration of coastal marshes and the oyster reefs, but much more will be needed in future years, Governor Barbour said.

Alabama Governor Bob Riley, a Republican, told the Senate panel that disaster aid for Alabama victims of Hurricane Katrina has totaled $590 million in the first six months after the storm.

Nearly 36,000 individuals and families have received housing assistance totaling more than $85 million. About 30,000 residents have benefited from $35 million in aid for other essential needs, and $108 million has gone for vital infrastructure costs, debris removal, emergency services, road and bridge repair and restoration of public utilities, said Governor Riley.