Senate Approves $10.5 Billion for Hurricane Relief

WASHINGTON, DC, September 2, 2005 (ENS) - Late last night the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a bill authorizing $10.5 billion in relief funding for the areas devastated by Hurricane Katrina. The House is expected to follow suit today.

Congress returned to Washington from their summer recess early to address the devastation left Monday by Hurricane Katrina as 145 mile per hour winds slammed into the Gulf Coast states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and earlier, Florida.

Gunshots and chaos disrupted the evacuation of flooded New Orleans on Thursday and more troops were ordered in to assist and control crowds of desperate survivors trying to escape the destruction.

Humand and animal bodies floated in the streets, armed looters stole medicine from hospitals and food and other valuables from shops, and a sniper took a shot at a military helicopter sent to carry survivors to safety.

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In flooded New Orleans a man aims to protect his property from attackers. Some property owners painted the words, "Looters will be shot on sight" on their buildings. (Photo courtesy Jordan M. Gregory)
A National Guard soldier was shot and wounded in the Superdome on Wednesday where some 23,000 displaced people were jammed together. As flood waters rose, drinking water and sanitary facilities failed in the arena, which was damaged during the storm. Officials decided to ship storm refugees by bus 350 miles west to the Houston Astrodome.

When they arrived in Houston Thursday night, some buses were turned away from the Astrodome where 25,000 people are supposed to be sheltered. Texas Governor Rick Perry's office said the city of San Antonio will take another 25,000 of the storm refugees.

Officials said they still have no exact tally of the numbers of people who have lost their lives to Hurricane Katrina.

“We don’t have numbers. It could be in the hundreds, or the thousands,” Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana said of the statewide death toll. “I think it’s going to be shocking.”

Up to 400,000 people in four states have been forced out of their homes. The city of New Orleans is uninhabitable, flooded to the rooftops when hurricane levees that were supposed to protect the city were breached by the storm in three places. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is attempting to repair the breaches.

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A National Guard multi-purpose utility truck brings supplies to the Superdome in downtown New Orleans. Tens of thousands of displaced citizens sought shelter at the dome, before, during and after Hurricane Katrina, but have been forced to evacuate as floodwaters continued to rise. (Photo by Photographer’s Mate Airman Jeremy L. Grisham courtesy U.S. Army)
Speaking to reporters by satellite phone from Biloxi-Gulfport Regional Airport in Mississippi, Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore outlined details of a massive Defense Department effort to support the Federal Emergency Management Agency, state governors, and other federal, state and civil authorities in the hurricane-stricken region.

More than 20,000 Army and Air National Guard members were on active duty Thursday morning in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, a number expected to surge to more than 30,000 Guard members in the next few days.

The $10.5 million in emergency funding was requested by President George W. Bush as an emergency supplement to the budget, one that the senators were quick to approve.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, MD of Tennessee said on the floor of the Senate late last night, "The ongoing crisis has become a crisis of refugees, a crisis of refugees the likes of which this country has never seen."

Some 350 miles inland from the Gulf, in Memphis, Tennessee, Frist said, "there are 10,000 refugees as we speak and over the course of tonight they’re expecting 4,000 more refugees in that town."

Frist said he was moved by TV images of families wading waist-high for dozens of blocks in search of food or dry land or clean water or marooned on those rooftops as flood waters swirl past, writing, inscribing with whatever they have available -“Need insulin,” “Diabetic,” “Please help.”

"Our very own colleague and friend, Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi, lost his family home in this disaster. He returned recently, about two days ago, to his family home and found nothing," said Frist.

"Towns and cities and communities and shorelines have been decimated and reduced to rubble, and to debris. We have a public health crisis that is just beginning, an ongoing crisis that will increase, almost with certainty, over the coming days and coming weeks," said Frist, a physician who lists instructions for avoiding illness during flood conditions on his website.

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A few of the thousands of storm refugees in the Houston Astrodome Thursday evening. (Photo courtesy FEMA)
Some blame the Bush administration for worsening the situation caused by the hurricane. "When a mandatory evacuation of New Orleans was declared, Amtrak had already shut down all trains, Greyhound had stopped all buses, and the only way to get out was to drive," said one person, who prefers not to be named. "This all happened at the end of the month, when the poorest folks who live from paycheck to paycheck had no money left to buy gas to leave. While people were told to evacuate, no help was offered in doing so, and no instructions were given on how to evacuate or where to go."

After Hurricane Andrew hit Florida in 1992, the Clinton administration reformed FEMA, and subsequently disaster response always began before the hurricane made landfall. But "the Bush administration has set us right back to where we were before Hurricane Andrew and the reforms of FEMA," the survivor said.

Acknowledging that the evacuation of New Orleans has been flawed, Frist said, "There are a lot of frustrations that have bubbled up over the course of the last several days, of do-more or things are not going well. We feel those frustrations. We feel that pain. We feel that suffering, and again, that is why we are here tonight to support, to deliver, to answer those challenges."

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said, "I support President Bush for submitting this $10.5 billion request, and I thank my colleagues for permitting us to take up and pass this important legislation tonight. Our unified response sends a powerful signal to victims of this tragedy looking for signs that their government sees their plight and stands with them during this dark time."

"In these days ahead," said Reid, "it is important we continue to send this strong, unified message. We must work together not as Democrats and Republicans, but as Americans united in helping families torn apart by this devastating storm."

White House spokesman Josh Bolten said the $10.5 billion in emergency funding that the House is likely to approve today will go into FEMA's general emergency account to be distributed as needed.

"I do anticipate that the Corps will be among those who will be drawing on it," Bolton said, "but there are a lot of different agencies are going to draw on the money to purchase housing, to get electricity back up and running, all sorts of response activities, generators. We're going to be needing to make payments to individuals."

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Storm refugees may be housed in the Houston Astrodome for months. (Photo courtesy FEMA)
Governor Perry’s office has discussed with Harris County Judge Robert Eckels the idea of turning the Astrodome into a long-term shelter to meet the housing, food and medical needs of storm refugees stranded in Texas. The Astrodome’s schedule has already been cleared until December.

Perry Thursday issued an emergency disaster declaration for the state of Texas and sent a letter to President Bush requested for federal emergency assistance as a result of Hurricane Katrina. The President issued disaster declarations for Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama earlier this week.

Perry said the crisis will be especially hard on children who have been suddenly uprooted from their daily routine, including school. Under federal law these children are considered homeless and are entitled to enroll in the school district where they temporarily reside.

“I want stranded families to know the doors of Texas’ public schools are immediately open to your school-aged children,” Perry said. “I also want school leaders to know that we realize this will put a strain on their capacity, so I have asked the Texas Education Agency to work them to make sure they have the textbooks they need, funding for transportation and the free-and-reduced lunch program and class size waivers as needed.”

Perry also said that the State of Florida has made an urgent request for a two week supply of gasoline because of a pipeline disruption caused by Katrina.

“To meet this need, I have asked the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to exercise enforcement discretion to allow for the loading of fuel from a refinery site in Port Arthur on marine vessels that will transport this fuel to Florida,” Perry said. “We are coordinating with the Environmental Protection Agency concerning any regulatory waivers needed to meet this urgent need.”