$29 Billion Approved for Gulf Coast Storm Relief

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 23, 2005

Congress approved a $29 billion package of Gulf Coast hurricane relief before adjourning for the year yesterday, channeling $11.5 billion to economic development grants and $10 billion to rebuild failed levees, U.S. military installations, bridges and roads.

The massive aid bill, approved by the House after the Senate voted 93 to 0 Wednesday night, also included $1.6 billion for schools throughout storm-affected regions and $390 million for low-income housing vouchers for displaced victims. It was attached to a $493 billion defense bill.

The package may not be the last federal relief measure for victims of this year's hurricanes, but the difficulty of its passage suggests it could be the largest. Despite months of wrangling, all but $6 billion of the measure merely reshuffled some of the $62 billion in previously approved Hurricane Katrina aid. The rest was funded by a 1 percent across-the-board cut of non-emergency, discretionary programs.

Gulf state officials said more help is needed for mortgage-payers of damaged or destroyed homes and to strengthen flood protection for New Orleans.

"This bill includes immediate, much-needed relief the people of the Gulf Coast have had to wait far too long for," said Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.).

Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) said he was "bitterly disappointed" that earlier Democratic objections to GOP efforts to open Alaska's wilderness to oil drilling led Senate leaders to jettison other provisions, including $9.8 billion more in hurricane aid that Louisiana and Mississippi senators sought.

President Bush hailed the action as part of a series of last-minute aid measures from Congress.

"These bills are important for the future of the Gulf Coast," Bush said on the eve of the last vote, citing an $8 billion Katrina tax-relief measure that Congress passed earlier in the week and saying it was one of his key priorities to make sure residents "get the help they need to rebuild."

At a news conference, R. David Paulison, acting director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, acknowledged that with the shift of a large chunk of Katrina aid, mostly from FEMA, the agency is left with $11 billion in unspent money to provide housing and other assistance to victims for 18 months, including 38,000 families still living in subsidized hotel rooms.

"I think we're going to have enough," Paulison said. "We're watching it very closely."

Congress is also watching. As part of the measure, lawmakers ordered the Department of Homeland Security to provide a long-term recovery plan by Feb. 28 and directed FEMA to set eligibility guidelines for people seeking housing aid within two weeks.

Overall, the package includes $11.5 billion for community development block grants for Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and Texas, with a cap of 54 percent for Louisiana. Lawmakers approved $2.3 billion for coastal flooding systems, $328 million for Army Corps of Engineers operations, $154 million for Mississippi River flood control and $101 million for general construction.

Congress cut $250 million slated for projects to ease coastal erosion but approved $96 million for wetlands. Also included were $2.8 billion to rebuild Interstate 10 outside New Orleans and other roads, $4.4 billion for the Defense Department, $750 million for damaged schools, $645 million for schools with evacuees, $200 million for higher education, and $5 million to educate homeless children.

In related action, Senate leaders removed $2 billion in heating assistance for low-income people from the defense bill after Democrats blocked the oil-drilling initiative. Yesterday, lawmakers from cold-climate states and advocates for the poor blasted the move, which may be revisited but probably not until late winter or spring.

"The only connection must have been some political connection" to punish drilling opponents or to keep energy aid as leverage in future Senate fights, said James Horney, senior fellow of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The center estimates that it will take $4.5 billion to provide the same level of aid that 5 million people received last year because of higher oil prices, Horney said. So far the government has approved about $2 billion.

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