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Public Statements

Issues Affecting America in the Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina

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Location: Washington DC


ISSUES AFFECTING AMERICA IN THE AFTERMATH OF HURRICANE KATRINA -- (House of Representatives - September 13, 2005)

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Ms. WASSERMAN SCHULTZ. Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to be here with my colleague once again and an honor to serve with him. I just have to commend the gentleman. I saw him when I was watching my TV coming off the plane yesterday, the gentleman's trip to tour the devastated areas and, particularly Hancock County, which I think the gentleman particularly went to with his Committee on Homeland Security colleagues to highlight that it was not just New Orleans, it was not just the ground zero area of New Orleans.

Ground Zero was actually Hancock County, and the communities there that essentially, it appears, have been forgotten, or at least neglected because they are smaller and the focus does not appear to be on them. So I was so proud of the gentleman to see him doing that. Once again, the gentleman is stepping up for people who need him. This is not, we are not here for a love fest; but it did my heart some good to know that colleagues of mine were going where their help was needed.

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Ms. WASSERMAN SCHULTZ. Mr. Speaker, the gentleman is right. As we discussed last week when we were putting this bill together, and we are fortunate that we have all 25 members of the Florida delegation as cosponsors, we are working together on this, this is not a partisan issue. We have some homeowners who were looking through the roof of their houses at the sky. The impact on those families in Florida is the same as the impact, without the widespread devastation, that they are feeling in the Gulf Coast States. But we wanted to make sure that Floridians do not get left behind who are suffering in the same way. I appreciate the gentleman's leadership and advice and guidance on helping to put that bill together.

One of the things that I wanted to talk about tonight is where we go from here, which is, I know, the direction that the gentleman from Florida is taking this discussion. There are some good things that have happened, in no small part, I think, due to the things that we have been pointing out over the last 10 or so days. Leader Pelosi has rightly called for an independent commission similar to the 9/11 Commission.

Like the gentleman said, that would not be Members of Congress sitting around and talking to each other; that it would be, and certainly that would be bipartisan and would be balanced and fair, so the American people can have confidence in our emergency preparedness and disaster response system. Because of all of this that has happened in the last 2 weeks, that is what has been shaken the most. We have been building, since September 11 we have been trying to rebuild Americans' confidence in the system, because when you have the Twin Towers knocked down, that was the biggest devastation beyond, obviously, the tragedy of the 3,000 people who died there, was that America's confidence was shaken in our ability to respond to those kinds of disasters.

And it is 4 years in the making, a process that we restore confidence, we restore people's ability to believe that we have some security here. While we may have made improvements on the terrorist and international risk preparedness level, clearly the domestic preparedness level, as the President admitted today, we have a lot of work to do. Because we never can predict Mother Nature, and particularly because of where we live, we have hurricanes approaching our constituents on a regular basis, it is really disturbing.

So I am glad that Under Secretary Brown did the right thing and stepped down. We called for it a year ago with our colleague, the gentleman from Florida (Mr. Wexler); and, quite honestly, had he done the right thing sooner than that, then perhaps we could have had a prepared expert in place who could have responded much better to the results of Katrina.

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Ms. WASSERMAN SCHULTZ. The gentleman is absolutely right on point.

Your comments remind me of a question that our good friend, Doug Lyons from the South Florida Sun Sentinel, who I spoke to this morning, asked me. He said, he asked me if Michael Brown's resignation was enough. He said, now that we have got a successful, documented professional who will be at least, on an interim basis, running FEMA and making sure that the disaster response to Katrina has an expert in charge, is that enough? You know, can we all breathe a sigh of relief, wipe our hands and go home?

I mean, the answer to that is just so absolutely not. The leader of FEMA is just the tip of the iceberg. I mean, when you ask any expert in emergency preparedness and disaster response if the one leader is the most important chink in the armor, they would of course say, no, it requires planning and preparation and budgeting and foresight and hindsight and a whole combination of expertise and planning that goes into preparedness and response.

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So while it certainly was the right thing to do, and we are pleased to see that former Under Secretary Brown now did the right thing and stepped aside, there is so much left to be done. And going forward, while we can talk about what went wrong, we need an independent investigation and an independent commission that will be able to examine objectively so the American people have their confidence restored and that we know we have some competence and some deliberations going on about how we are going to deal with these kind of disasters in the future. We have got to talk about what comes next.

You watch the news every night, and now almost all the TV stations are allowing Katrina victims to list their cell phone numbers on national television because some of them are still looking for their kids. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, at least as of yesterday, said there were still 1,700 missing children reported from Katrina's aftermath: 1,700 children, 14 year olds, 12 year olds, 6 year olds, babies. There are babies that are still separated from their parents, from their moms.

We have got to do something going forward for these Katrina victims. We have got to make sure they have housing. We have got to make sure we get these kids back in school and we can get them back in school near or in the area that they originally lived in. And like the gentleman said, with the President's waiver of Davis-Bacon, which is the law that requires the prevailing wage be paid to workers, what incentive is there going to be for them to come back?

When you have the State of Israel, which commendably has offered scholarships for the college students that were displaced by Katrina, and we have Katrina victims going over, Jews and non-Jews going over to Israel now to accept scholarships, and the generosity of other countries, boy, does that say a lot about what we need to do to step up and make these residents whole again. We have got to ensure that a number of different things happen.

This is the 30-something Working Group. We have got a generation of people and young kids and our generation's children that are going to be in

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dire need of their government's assistance. And if there is any time when it is imperative that the Federal Government engage, any point with any circumstance that there is an appropriate and vital role for the Federal Government, it is in response to a hurricane.

I am glad to see that the President today acknowledged finally, because it is really the first time I have heard him acknowledge, the possibility of a mistake. I am glad to see that he owned up at least in part to the possibility of there being problems, and it will be interesting to see what he says Thursday night when he speaks to the American people.

I hope what he says, we hope what he says is that there is going to be some drastic changes in our preparedness, in our response, in our funding, and in our priorities, because right now we are moving in the wrong direction.

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Ms. WASSERMAN SCHULTZ. Mr. Speaker, if you do not mind if I jump in, I want to just caution people listening tonight, our colleagues, our leadership, because when you have a disaster or anything of the proportion in size that Katrina was, it is hard to get your mind around it, especially if you have not been there. You now have direct, first-person ability to relay and understand the depth of what happened. Most of us have only seen the aftermath on TV.

The danger that we have in front of us is that with every passing day that Katrina's hitting is behind us, we are in danger of the American public and us as leaders becoming desensitized. The more it is on the news, the more we hear about it, the more we read about it, it is just the human psyche is such that you cannot have that raw nerve scratched every day and not steel yourself against it. With that desensitization, we are in danger of not having an appropriate response come out of this body, and we have got to come together.

We come here every week and we stand up and we point out our very clear differences with our friends on the other side of the aisle, but it does not have to be this way with the response to Katrina. There are some specific action items that can and should be done in order to prevent ourselves from becoming desensitized, not just as policy-makers but in the general populace as well.

We need the press. We should commend the press from the floor of this body for the spotlight that they have shown on these victims and their reality because, quite honestly, without that spotlight being shown by them, without their piling into the storm-ravaged area, see no evil, hear no evil, they would still be saying the same thing, and we would not have had the response and reaction that, quite frankly, we should have had right from the beginning.

So I want to commend the press and encourage them to continue to do it, but we have some action items that need to occur.

We need to get these people health care. We need to make sure they have access to Medicaid immediately. We

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need to get them food stamp access. We need to make sure that they have access to education and housing and not just far-flung housing all over the country. If you lived in New Orleans, you do not need to resettle yourself permanently in Utah. That is not what we want to have a policy direct these people to. We want to bring them back. We want to set up transitional and then temporary housing and then eventually get them into permanent facilities, whether it is facilities that they have assistance from the Federal Government or whether they be given the ability to help them to make their own purchases of homes, which would be a wonderful thing to see.

That is what the leadership in this Congress is going to need to make happen. It is certainly going to be suggested by our side of the aisle. We need to make sure that we come together and suggest it on both sides of the aisle. The reconciliation process should be suspended. There are a number of things that should happen, and we are going to continue to talk about that.

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