Bush Offers Money, Land, Federal Help for Hurricane Victims
NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana, September 16, 2005 (ENS) - To help storm victims recover from the ravages of Hurricane Katrina, President George W. Bush Thursday night proposed the creation of a Gulf Opportunity Zone, encompassing the region of the disaster in Louisiana and Mississippi and Alabama. In addition, Bush proposed a lottery to distribute cost-free building lots to families from federal lands, as well as accounts of up to $5,000 to help storm victims find work.
Addressing the nation from Jackson Square in a rare section of New Orleans that is undamaged, the President said within the Gulf Opportunity Zone "we should provide immediate incentives for job-creating investment, tax relief for small businesses, incentives to companies that create jobs, and loans and loan guarantees for small businesses, including minority-owned enterprises, to get them up and running again."
The President also proposed the creation of Worker Recovery Accounts to help evacuees who need extra help finding work. "Under this plan," Bush said, "the federal government would provide accounts of up to $5,000, which these evacuees could draw upon for job training and education to help them get a good job, and for child care expenses during their job search."
In the last of three proposals, the President asked Congress to pass a law that would set up a lottery for "low-income" citizens in the hurricane region to have a chance to acquire a building site free of charge on property now owned by the federal government.
"In return," Bush explained, "they would pledge to build on the lot, with either a mortgage or help from a charitable organization like Habitat for Humanity."
Calling the proposed legislation "an Urban Homesteading Act," Bush said, "Home ownership is one of the great strengths of any community, and it must be a central part of our vision for the revival of this region."
In the task of recovery and rebuilding, some of the hardest work is still ahead, said the President, and it will require "the creative skill and generosity of a united country."
New Orleans is a city that is still "nearly empty, still partly under water, and waiting for life and hope to return," Bush said.
"All major gasoline pipelines are now in operation, preventing the supply disruptions that many feared," he said. "The breaks in the levees have been closed, the pumps are running, and the water here in New Orleans is receding by the hour."
"Environmental officials are on the ground, taking water samples, identifying and dealing with hazardous debris, and working to get drinking water and waste water treatment systems operating again. And some very sad duties are being carried out by professionals who gather the dead, treat them with respect, and prepare them for their rest."
"Many families were separated during the evacuation, and we are working to help you reunite," Bush said. "Please call this number: 1-877-568-3317 - that's 1-877-568-3317 - and we will work to bring your family back together, and pay for your travel to reach them."
The Department of Homeland Security is registering evacuees who are now in shelters and churches, or private homes, whether in the Gulf region or elsewhere in the country. President Bush has signed an order providing immediate assistance to people from the disaster area.
He said that as of today, more than 500,000 evacuee families have gotten emergency help to pay for food, clothing, and other essentials. Evacuees who have not yet registered should contact FEMA or the Red Cross.
Housing for evacuees is the next big problem. More than 250,000 houses in New Orleans and surrounding parishes are no longer safe to live in and housing is needed for hundreds of thousands of people from across the region.
Bush said the government's goal is to get people out of the shelters by the middle of October. "So we're providing direct assistance to evacuees that allows them to rent apartments, and many already are moving into places of their own."
Where states have taken evacuees in and provided them with services, Bush said he would work with the Congress to ensure that states are reimbursed for these extra expenses.
Saying that the private fundraising effort led by former Presidents Bush and Clinton has already received pledges of more than $100 million, the President urged Americans to continue to donate to the Red Cross and other charities of their choice. Some of the $100 million will go to the governors to be used for immediate needs within their states. A portion will be sent to local houses of worship to help reimburse them for the expense of helping others.
And finally, the President said he will cooperate completely with a Congressional investigation that is being prepared to examine the flawed government response to the hurricane.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, said Thursday that the House passed a resolution forming a bipartisan Select Committee to review the Katrina relief efforts.
The resolution calls for the Select Committee to investigate, "the development, coordination and execution by local, state and federal authorities of emergency response plans and other activities in preparation for Hurricane Katrina," Hastert said, as well as, the local, state and federal government response to the hurricane.
Chaired by Representative Tom Davis of Virginia, the Select Committee will report its findings to the Congress no later than February 15, 2006.
Paying tribute to the men and women the military and state and local governments, who performed skillfully under the worst conditions, still, the President acknowledged "the system, at every level of government, was not well-coordinated, and was overwhelmed in the first few days."
"It is now clear that a challenge on this scale requires greater federal authority and a broader role for the armed forces - the institution of our government most capable of massive logistical operations on a moment's notice," he said.
Four years after September the 11th, said Bush, Americans have every right to expect a more effective response in a time of emergency.
"When the federal government fails to meet such an obligation, I, as President, am responsible for the problem, and for the solution," he said.
"So I've ordered every Cabinet Secretary to participate in a comprehensive review of the government response to the hurricane. This government will learn the lessons of Hurricane Katrina. We're going to review every action and make necessary changes, so that we are better prepared for any challenge of nature, or act of evil men, that could threaten our people."
But Bush's speech drew plenty of criticism. Said Senator John Kerry, a Democrat who ran against Bush in last year's pesidential election, "Leadership isn't a speech or a toll-free number. Leadership is getting the job done. No American doubts that New Orleans will rise again, they doubt the competence and commitment of this administration."
"Weeks after Katrina, Americans want an end to politics-as-usual that leaves them dangerously and unforgivably unprepared," Kerry said. "Americans want to know that their government will be there when it counts with leadership that keeps them safe, not speeches in the aftermath to explain away the inexcusable."
Former Democratic Whip David Bonior said Bush has "pledged his allegiance behind closed doors to Big Business."
"Enacted during the Depression era, the Act was designed to protect workers in desperate need of employment from profiteering contractors who could take advantage of their vulnerability," Bonior said.
"Slashing pay for painters, truck drivers and laborers by shelving Davis-Bacon is more likely to translate into higher contractor profits - a boon for the Halliburtons of this world," said Bonior, "than lower construction costs."
Bonior called President Bush's recovery plans "a shameful, government-sponsored race-to-the-bottom for the working families of the Gulf Coast."
A coalition of African American leaders, including Bruce Gordon, president and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Thursday called a news conference to urge President Bush and Congress to set an inclusive and proactive agenda in addressing problems caused by Hurricane Katrina. The group said relief efforts should also take into consideration the growing poverty crisis in the Gulf region and other parts of the United States.