OPENING STATEMENT OF HON. MARY LANDRIEU
Senator Landrieu: Good morning, everyone. Let me call this field hearing to order, and I thank all those who are participating today.
I want to begin by thanking the U.S. Coast Guard Sector New York for being such wonderful hosts for us today in this facility that served as a tactical command in the response to Hurricane Sandy. And I thank the Coast Guard leadership, Captain Gordon Loebl and his team that have done a wonderful job today. Thank you for being such wonderful hosts to us today.
I also want to say how pleased I am for my colleague, Senator Gillibrand, who we will hear first her testimony today, to thank her for her extraordinary leadership not only on behalf of her citizens that she represents, but the whole country, as it comes to disaster response for Sandy and for better response for all other disasters as well.
I was with Senator Schumer, Senator Gillibrand, earlier this morning. He is not going to be able to be with us today, but I think he was helping to open Fairway grocery in Red Hook in Brooklyn, and I want to thank Senator Schumer for his leadership as well.
Let me begin with an opening statement, and then we will go right into Senator Gillibrand's questions and testimony.
We meet here today to receive testimony and evaluate the massive rebuilding effort that is now underway in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy to restore homes, communities, and the economy of this region. Hurricane Sandy struck on October 29th as the largest sized storm system in the history of the United States.
Two of our Nation's most populous States ---- New York and New Jersey ---- were especially hard hit. The storm claimed the lives of more than 120 Americans and destroyed 340,000 homes and 200,000 businesses. The storm left more than 8.5 million families without power, heat, or running water for weeks -- in some communities, much longer.
The National Hurricane Center estimates that Hurricane Sandy will be, when all costs and estimates are in, the second costliest in our Nation's history, only behind Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans, the region, and the Gulf Coast almost 8 years ago.
The scale of this disaster has created significant housing and transportation challenges, and the successful rebuilding will require a sustained and coordinated effort at the Federal, State, and local government level, along with significant help from the private sector and voluntary organizations.
Unfortunately, thousands and thousands of my constituents in Louisiana know exactly what our friends here along the East Coast are going through in their efforts to recover from this devastating storm. Substantial Federal support was delivered to the Gulf Coast after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, but navigating the Federal bureaucracy to access that help was, at times, maddening.
Homeowners had to wait for years before repair and elevation grants became available. Insurance companies refused to pay thousands of legitimate claims. Business owners were denied emergency loans by the Small Business Administration. Local officials were forced topainstakingly document every iota of damage and negotiate with frequently rotating, poorly trained staff that lacked proper experience in damage assessment.
Work was delayed by lengthy and duplicative environmental reviews. Federal agencies argued with one another for years over the responsibility for rebuilding public housing, removing waterway debris, and filling the void in mental health service delivery systems, as families waited, as neighborhoods atrophied, and as hope dissipated.
As a result of these hard lessons from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, I worked closely with the delegation members from New York and New Jersey, including this extraordinary Senator, Senator Gillibrand, Senator Schumer, Senator Lautenberg, Senator Menendez, Congressman King, Congresswoman Lowey, and Congresswoman Slaughter, in particular, to include many of the reforms in the $50.5 billion Hurricane Sandy relief bill that passed Congress in January.
For example, FEMA can provide debris removal and infrastructure repair grants in advance now, on a fixed, reasonable estimate, instead of forcing communities to carry out the work at their own expense and submit an exhaustive volume of paperwork in order just to seek Federal reimbursement.
Projects can be consolidated, which was not available before, to ensure that schools, police stations, fire
stations are strategically rebuilt where they are needed.
In other words, this recovery should be about building the future, not rebuilding the past.
This act helps us to have a smarter recovery. The act also established a dispute resolution process, which we used very regularly during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita to resolve disputes between the local, State, and Federal Government about how much a project costs. There was no end to that debate, and, of course, it lengthened considerably the time of recovery. We hope we have solved that problem.
One other example of the many improvements in the act is the requirement for the President to establish a unified and expedited environmental review process, which should substantially expedite the rebuilding of neighborhoods and public infrastructure while respecting the environment.
I believe these reforms will free FEMA to become a smarter, more efficient agency that can act quickly to cut through the unnecessary red tape while ensuring the appropriate stewardship of taxpayer funds.
I look forward to learning how FEMA will be implementing these new authorities and utilizing them for the benefit of the people here on the East Coast that need our best efforts right now.
Another of the most important tools included in the Sandy relief is the $16 billion flexible Community
Development Block Grants. I am particularly interested in learning how affected communities are planning to use these funds to support their recovery.
Because there are ample examples of planning for safer, stronger, and smarter disaster communities since Katrina, through an initiative -- I am going to give you just a few examples -- called Louisiana Speaks, established in the aftermath of our storms by Governor Blanco, long-term community planning to build better levees, restore barrier islands and wetlands, design sustainable neighborhoods, enhance local economies, and modernize transportation options were initiated.
In addition, Harvard stepped up through their Kennedy School of Government and did a first-of-its-kind study on one of the dozens of neighborhoods that were destroyed in the New Orleans region named Broadmoor. It happens to be my neighborhood; that is not why they chose it. But they have done some wonderful tracking in efficiency of methods that were deployed to rebuild that neighborhood. And those lessons are readily available for communities here in the Northeast corridor.
This information and study is now available to serve as a guide to disaster-affected communities. I hope the leaders here will tap into that and other resources that are available.
And finally, as the record will reflect, President Obama established the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force on December 7 and designated Shaun Donovan, Secretary of the Department of Housing and Development, to chair it, consistent with the principles of the new interagency recovery framework that was also issued by this administration to try to get this right.
Secretary Donovan, as you all know, is a native New Yorker with extensive housing and community development experience working with both the public and private sector.
I cannot think of a more capable, more experienced, or more passionate leader to spearhead the Federal Government's efforts here in this region.
The President has directed his task force to convene Federal agencies with a role in recovery to eliminate stovepipe operations. The task force is busily at work developing a strategy. We will hear about that strategy today.
And finally, I think it is important to take a moment this morning to reflect that the Department of Homeland Security was officially established on this day 10 years ago in the aftermath of a horrific and unprecedented attack on the World Trade Center here in New York.
Over the last decade, this department has been organized, stood up, restructured on several occasions, subject to multiple new laws, under tremendous pressure, has experienced a steady increase in funding until 2010 where this funding has been leveled off due to the gridlock in Washington. Yet, under the able leadership of Janet Napolitano, our Secretary, the department has really been stretched lately to meet the ever-evolving threats and challenges, both manmade and natural disasters. That work continues. That is what our work is about today.
As part of this new department, FEMA has experienced significant change in the last 8 years after a shameful response to Hurricane Katrina with a lot of hard work, particularly by Craig Fugate, who is with us this morning.
FEMA has been reconstituted, professionalized. And Congress, thanks to Kirsten Gillibrand and others, has provided substantial resources to restore it to a higher level of competency and performance, doubling its workforce, dramatically augmenting its capabilities.
However, we know there are still gaps. We know there are still challenges. We know that communities are having difficulty as they recover from this catastrophic event. Sothat is what this hearing is about, to hear what is working, to hear what is not working, and to continue to improve.
With that, I would like to introduce our first witness. We will hear from Senator Gillibrand who has fought tirelessly and effectively on behalf not only of the constituents she represents but the entire region to jumpstart this recovery.
And on our next panel, we will hear from two Federal agencies leading the recovery process. And on the final, most important panel, we will hear from local officials who are on the ground trying to make sense of the damage they see with their eyes, the heartbreak they feel with their hearts in trying to help their communities recover and get back to normal.
So, Senator Gillibrand, we welcome your testimony this morning, and thank you for being such a smart and compassionate leader for this region.