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Hurricane Katrina

Location: Washington, DC

HURRICANE KATRINA -- (Senate - September 13, 2005)

Mr. VITTER. Mr. President, I thank my colleagues, especially the senior Senator from Louisiana, Senator Landrieu, and the distinguished Senators from Mississippi and Alabama for all of their leadership during this Hurricane Katrina crisis. I thank all of my colleagues who have offered their heartfelt thoughts and prayers and very concrete help over these past 2 very difficult weeks.

I arrived back yesterday from the battlefields of the other gulf war. I stand before you to offer my firsthand report. I don't mean to be overly dramatic in my use of the analogy to war. I mean to be accurate. I mean to effectively convey the magnitude of the destruction, the enormity and complexity of the ongoing human impacts, and, perhaps most important, the level of national resolve and commitment that we need to win the recovery effort.

We have all seen very powerful and destructive storms come ashore. We have seen them cause enormous damage, create short-term flooding, even take lives. And then the next day we respond and the residents of the stricken area walk through their community and try to begin picking up the pieces.

This is different. It is not just fiercer or bigger, it is wholly different.

Yes, Katrina was one of the most powerful hurricanes ever. When it hit Louisiana's coast, it did so with sustained winds of 140 miles per hour. Its low pressure reading of 920 at landfall made it one of the three most ferocious storms ever to hit the United States, along with Camille in 1969 and the Labor Day Storm of 1935. But it was much more than that. Yes, Katrina was also one of the largest hurricanes ever geographically. Those ferocious winds extended 100 miles from the eye of the storm, which means they pounded the stricken area for hour upon hour upon hour, a devastated area roughly the size of Great Britain; roughly 2 1/2 times larger than the area hit by Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

But it was even more than that. You see, Katrina was a ferocious, huge hurricane that hit a treasured coastline, an entire region, including a major American metropolitan area, and that population center is one of the poorest in the country, and it is the only one that sits largely under sea level, protected by levees until some of the levees broke.

What does that mean? Storm surges of up to 25 feet; large portions of southeast Louisiana with long-term flooding of up to 20 feet; tens of thousands of people who had not evacuated, most in one-story wooden houses, driven to their attics and roofs, many to be trapped there.

The crisis did not stop or stabilize there. In the ensuing days, it meant the breakdown of basic institutions: the failure of all communication systems; lawlessness, which began spiraling out of control; thousands of evacuees collecting in safe havens such as the Louisiana Superdome and the New Orleans Convention Center, which quickly became some of the most unsafe hellholes imaginable.

What does it all mean now? It means a major American metropolitan area evacuated. This is the first time this has happened since the Civil War. There is that war theme again. But the difference is, American cities have grown quite a bit since then. This metro area is home to 1.3 million people. It means hundreds of thousands of evacuees

from southeast Louisiana. These are numbers comparable to some of the historic dislocations during World War II, but the difference is it is right here in America.

During all of this I was in southeast Louisiana. My wife Wendy and I packed up our minivan and our four kids and drove to Memphis the Saturday before the storm. After leaving them safely with family, I returned to Baton Rouge that Sunday, where I slept in a true safe haven, the State Police compound, and began traveling into all of the devastated areas beginning that Tuesday morning.

Much like in war, what I saw covered the whole spectrum of human activity. Indeed, it tended to concentrate on the two ends of the spectrum: great acts of personal heroism followed by a truly awesome military operation beginning on day five on one end of the spectrum; looting and worse and bureaucratic incompetence on the other end.

Let me be very clear and precise about this because some reports of my critique of the early relief effort have caused some consternation. I was quoted after the first few days as saying that the early government relief effort was a failure. I was quoted correctly and this was clearly, unequivocally, indisputably true. In that initial relief effort, FEMA failed us miserably and Louisiana's hurricane preparation and emergency bureaucracy failed us miserably, too.

Don't take my word for it. Talk to the mother with her young daughter whom I left at the Lafayette shelter. They were still in shock, not from the storm but from the hell on Earth that they had been placed into at the Louisiana Superdome. Or talk to nurse Jody Lopez, who was holed up in Lindsey Boggs Memorial Hospital, or Dr. Tom Kiernan, trapped at Tulane Hospital, who struggled to keep critical care patients alive for days with no sign of help in sight.

Thank God that while the bureaucrats failed, others succeeded. The first group of heroes who held on and overcame amazing challenges in those first few days were local leaders and citizens on the ground. This was true in every community I visited--New Orleans, St. Bernard, Slidell, Bogalusa, Amite, Kenner, to name a few. Sheriff's deputies in St. Bernard were living on a small riverboat so they could continue their vital work. Eight days after the storm most had not seen their homes or talked to their families, but they were committed to keeping St. Bernard safe and putting their duty above their families and property.

There were hundreds of private citizens such as David Fakaouri of Baton Rouge, who pulled his boat down to New Orleans and spent days combing the city for survivors, saving more than 60 people personally. These private citizen rescuers slept in their boats and trucks, using their own fuel, and witnessed suffering at a level we cannot imagine.

Local leaders such as State Senator Ben Nevers of Washington Parish worked tirelessly to secure police reinforcements, water, food, gasoline, even chain saws to cut out of isolated areas.

There was the lunch crew at Belle Chasse High School in Plaquemines Parish who, operating on emergency power only, fed hundreds of relief workers every day. When I left them, they were working to feed the Army Rangers who had arrived to provide support and security.

These local leaders and private citizens were also aided by counterparts from around Louisiana and around the country. These counterparts collected food, water, ice, generators, fuel and other necessities, and with no plan and with no budget they got it to devastated areas, in many cases over a week ahead of the bureaucrats.

Local police units from communities in Kentucky and Illinois were among the first to show up and offer assistance to our local police forces. Similar dispatches from communities in California and Ohio sent security reinforcements to their comrades in Gretna.

Wal-Mart voluntarily offered its Kenner store as the food supply and distribution center for the entire city of Kenner the day after the storm and then, after the Kenner store was depleted, Wal-Mart National continued to send two truckloads of relief per day to keep that effort going.

Members of the Young President's Organization raised millions in essential supplies to turn over to their fellow YPO member, State Senator Walter Boasso. Walter used his company barges and worked with other leaders to set up their own dock operation and get supplies to St. Bernard. Acadian Ambulance is a private Lafayette-based ambulance service whose people not only inundated the area with ambulances to evacuate hospitals and nursing homes, but who actually created and implemented an ad hoc but effective evacuation plan while the State Department of Health and Hospitals dithered.

These local leaders and private citizens, heroes both from throughout the devastated area and around the country, got us through those first crucial days. And then another group of heroes helicoptered in, the men and women of our military. In fact, we turned a corner in our relief efforts the Friday after the storm, day five, because it became a full-scale military operation. And with that came a completely different mindset, a completely different culture than the bureaucratic one we had been fighting for 5 days. ``We can't do that,'' and ``That's not our job exactly,'' was replaced with, not ``Yes,'' but ``Yes, sir.'' Members of the Coast Guard who were out saving lives Monday afternoon, before the storm's winds even died down, rescued more than 33,000 people.

U.S. Army LTG Russell Honore from Pointe Coupee Parish, LA, assumed command of the Active-Duty military effort in our State and personally took charge to establish that can-do attitude.

The 82nd Airborne, which took charge of New Orleans Airport that Saturday, organized the operation overnight and evacuated thousands. This same organization that landed in Normandy, where the Higgins boats made in New Orleans were key to victory on D-Day, also helped in the rescue efforts by dropping in food, water, and supplies to thousands in need.

Coast Guard VADM Thad Allen is now in charge of relief efforts and now finally pushing that same can-do attitude onto the bureaucracies of FEMA and the State bureaucracies that floundered in the early response.

These groups of heroes--local leaders partnered with private citizens and the military--have stabilized efforts in the devastated areas, but enormous challenges remain. In the areas hardest hit by Katrina, these challenges include reinstituting the necessities of a modern, civil society, such as a full-fledged New Orleans police force and criminal justice system, replacing countless miles of electricity and phone lines, establishing huge communities of temporary housing, bulldozing and rebuilding entire neighborhoods and parts of the metropolitan area, and bringing businesses and jobs back.

Beyond the devastated area, the radius of our challenges has expanded to wherever there are large numbers of evacuees--Houston, San Antonio, Charlotte, Salt Like City, Milwaukee--and every town and city across the rest of Louisiana. You see, so many of the evacuees lived their lives paycheck to paycheck. So many others depended on Social Security or other programs. They need immediate help in all of those areas--well beyond Louisiana. Unfortunately, the bureaucrats are still in charge of this.

As we tackle these challenges, let us remember what worked in the initial relief effort and what didn't work. As we investigate--and we must--let us focus on that central question: what worked and what didn't work.

I have heard many Washington talking heads say that heads must roll. I am all for that, and I have my own personal list. But that alone isn't enough. We need to look at the big picture--not just which people failed but which institutes and models failed, and, just as importantly, which others worked against all odds. A new head bureaucrat is not the solution to a failed bureaucracy. We need to look at the successful can-do military culture and the startling success of people-power and private initiative. Government outlays alone will not rebuild a great American metropolitan area and repopulate it with jobs. We need mega-enterprise zones to harness private sector investment power and to recreate jobs. Returning to the same routine of begging and scraping for flood and hurricane protection will ensure that this happens again.

We need energy royalty sharing as a stable source of revenue for Corps of Engineers hurricane protection projects, and we need the same to use and to invest in coastal restoration to protect Louisiana and our Nation's oil and gas supply.

Second, the tens of billions of dollars in government relief money through FEMA and the State OEP--the very same agencies which failed us--will lead to more failure. We need a Katrina reconstruction commission headed by a no-nonsense, nonpolitical businessman manager so that we will all have something lasting to show for this enormous spending.

I am working with my colleagues in the Louisiana delegation, Senator Landrieu, and all of our House Members, to introduce a comprehensive legislative package for implementing these ideas, and we will be outlining our specific proposals in the very near future.

In closing, let me make one final plea; that is, as we do all of this, let us do it together in a sincere spirit of bipartisanship.

I saw horrific scenes in the days after the storm. I smelled sweltering stench. But what I sometimes heard coming out of Washington was more sickening--ridiculous arguments tying the suffering to the war in Iraq and the Reagan deficit, talk of boycotting bipartisan hearings and stonewalling independent commissions. Nobody in the stricken area is talking that nonsense. They are rebuilding lives.

So perhaps the best thing we can do as leaders is to follow--follow the basic goodness and common sense of Louisianians and Americans. If we don't, if we allow this matter to become just another partisan political football, then we will have done one thing; that is, to victimize the victims of Hurricane Katrina all over again.

Two of Louisiana's beloved football teams--the New Orleans Saints and the LSU Tigers--lifted our spirit with victories this past weekend. The Saints beat the odds, and the Tigers won in the game's last second with a pass verging on a Hail Mary. It reinforced for us what we already knew:

that even in dark times, hope springs eternal, prayers are answered, and a can-do attitude pays dividends. I have no doubt that Louisiana's resolve and spirit will be demonstrated in the coming months as our families rebuild their lives and their communities. America is joining us in that same spirit. Let us all follow their example.

Thank you, Mr. President.

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