EMERGENCY SUPPLEMENTAL APPROPRIATIONS ACT FOR DEFENSE, THE GLOBAL WAR ON TERROR, AND HURRICANE RECOVERY, 2006 -- (House of Representatives - March 16, 2006)
Mr. JINDAL. Mr. Chairman, in the days and weeks after first Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita, it became very clear that the lack of communications was one of the biggest obstacles to a rapid recovery and a rapid rescue effort in the face of these awful disasters.
The purpose of the amendment that I offer today is to use $2 million for the Department of Defense's Technical Support Working Group to deploy in hurricane-affected States existing technology that provides wireless, interoperable, mobile, encrypted broadband communications for first responders, National Guard, Federal response personnel in the case of future disasters or in the case of the temporary absence of communications.
FEMA has already been tasked with identifying and providing existing commercially available capabilities in time to provide responders with this capability before the next hurricane season begins. The capability exists and needs to be rapidly deployed.
The purpose for my amendment is to use $2 million for the working group to deploy in these areas existing technology.
Federal, State, and local law enforcement and first responder agencies were limited in their ability to respond to Hurricane Katrina because they couldn't communicate. The House Select Committee on Katrina identified this as a key failure at all levels. The Select Committee's recommendation states in part that the Department of Homeland Security should establish and maintain a deployable communications capability to quickly gain and retain situational awareness when responding to catastrophic incidents.
My amendment takes a step in the right direction and, importantly, does so before the next hurricane season, which starts June 1. We must provide responders with the capability to talk across agencies, within their agency when customary communications systems like phones are disrupted or destroyed.
This is not, obviously, a cure-all approach to solve our Nation's interoperable problems; but it is one solution that provides a stopgap system that allows responders to talk to each other using their existing hardware from mobile or fixed locations when existing systems aren't available.
FEMA has already been tasked with this responsibility before the next hurricane season. The capability exists and needs to be rapidly deployed.
This amendment does not require additional Federal dollars. It simply provides $2 million and directs the Department of Defense and its technical support working group to work with FEMA using funds Congress has already planned to provide FEMA to identify and deploy the capability.
From a personal perspective, I can state, being on the ground in the days and weeks after Katrina and Rita, this was one of the biggest gaps in our Federal, State and local response, the inability to have interoperable communications.
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Mr. JINDAL. Mr. Chairman, I intend to offer and withdraw this amendment.
The purpose of my amendment is to restore the administration's request to rebuild New Orleans' VA Medical Center. I do intend to withdraw this amendment pursuant to a colloquy with my colleagues. I want to, first of all, state the rationale for my amendment in the first place.
The VA Medical Center suffered significant damage after the hurricane. It is a 354-bed acute care facility. It provides health care to more than 220,000 veterans who live in a 23-parish region served by this medical center. It is absolutely critical to get this hospital rebuilt as quickly as possible to continue serving these thousands of veterans, our men and women who have served us so proudly in uniform.
Ironically, it was not the hurricane that did the majority of damage to the VA center. Instead, the facility actually initially weathered the hurricane with minimal damage. However, the breach of the levees days later flooded the entire area around the medical center. Let me correct myself, I am sorry, Mr. Chairman.
It was the breach of the levees, not days later, it was the breach of the levees caused by the failure of design and construction. It was the breach of the levees that flooded the entire area around the medical center, the facility's first floor basement and sub-basement. Those floors housed the facility's major electrical, mechanical and dietetics equipment. Of the 1,819 VA employees in New Orleans, 40 percent lost their homes.
Despite this destruction, despite the obstacles, the VA was one of the few bright lights to shine through the devastation that hit the region. Advanced planning, a well-known electronic medical system helped to ensure that VA could coordinate and move thousands of staff and patients to facilities across the United States without a single loss of life attributed to the lack of medical attention.
In addition, VA staff members volunteered thousands of hours of their time to assist veterans and other citizens in the affected communities to ensure that the aftermath of this storm and the response could go as smoothly as possible.
Right now, the current situation is that thousands of veterans are being forced to drive a long distance or do without the health care they need. The President initially requested over $600 million to rebuild the medical center in addition to the previous $75 million that was included in the December supplemental for planning and land acquisition.
This is an important facility for the VA. I also want to commend the VA for working together with LSU, which operates the city's Charity Hospital. They have announced an intent to try to work together to construct a shared facility, so the new hospital would have the economies of scale, for example, sharing potentially laundries and other facilities with the State hospital that will also need to be rehabilitated, maybe even rebuilt before it reopens. It is crucial to restore this funding; it is crucial that we get this hospital open as quickly as possible.
I do intend to yield to one of my colleagues. It is my understanding in working with the committee, that they will work with me to ensure that the VA does have the funds they need to reopen this facility in its entirety. I think there was some discussion about the adequacy of the funds, and there was some analysis of how much funds would actually be needed to reopen this facility.
I yield to the gentleman from New York.
Mr. WALSH. Mr. Chairman, I appreciate the gentleman's concern for the construction of the new veterans hospital in New Orleans. I would like to state, also, that I congratulate him and thank him for the leadership that he has provided to the great city and the great people of New Orleans. He has been a consistent and strong supporter.
We will continue to work on this issue, and I will work with the gentleman and all other interested parties to ensure that all necessary funding is available to complete the hospital on schedule.
Mr. JINDAL. I want to thank my colleague and thank the committee. With this agreement, I am willing to withdraw this amendment.
My understanding was there was some confusion in the initial estimates about the actual cost of constructing a parking garage that might have caused an inflated estimate.
I do thank my colleagues for being willing to work with me to make sure this facility is reconstructed as quickly as possible so the veterans can get the health care they deserve. I thank my colleagues. I thank the Chairman.
Mr. Chairman, I ask unanimous consent to withdraw my amendment.
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Mr. JINDAL. Mr. Chairman, I again intend to offer and then withdraw this amendment pursuant to a colloquy with my colleagues.
The purpose of this amendment, but before I do that, I want to explain the rationale and importance of this amendment. I have offered an amendment to provide funding requested in the amount of $142 million to allow the reconstruction of the National Guard facilities in New Orleans, Louisiana. Replacement of these facilities are absolutely critical for the function of the Louisiana Army National Guard.
Hurricane Katrina severely damaged these facilities, so that they must be replaced. These units are now currently in temporary interim facilities and have less than half the required training area and storage facilities. These makeshift facilities are overcrowded and disjointed in terms of the capacities they offer. Proper facilities need to be constructed immediately to prevent further deterioration of the equipment.
On August 29, 2005, the Jackson Barracks, in particular, suffered massive flooding from Hurricane Katrina. Several weeks later, after the floodwaters had subsided from the hurricane, the readiness centers were again flooded from Hurricane Rita. Together these two hurricanes caused extreme catastrophic damage to the readiness centers that housed the Joint Force Headquarters and the 1/141 Field Artillery Battalion. Portions of each facility were completely destroyed, suffering from building collapses, collapses as a result of the storm's wind, rains and floodwaters.
The damage inflicted upon the readiness center and all other facilities on the Jackson Barracks has rendered them completely useless. The 512 soldiers of the Field Artillery Battalion and the 216 soldiers of the Joint Forces Headquarters are now operating out of small corner spaces in numerous buildings spread across the State of Louisiana until interim facilities can be provided for these units affected by these hurricanes.
These interim facilities should be ready for use in a few short months. However, they will be nothing close to what is authorized or required to provide for mission ready combat units of the United States Army. The Field Artillery Battalion will have less than a quarter of its authorized square feet required for unit training assemblies and a readiness center for a unit of its size. This is the space needed to provide the facilities needed for the unit to meet its wartime training requirements.
The unit will share this space with another unit as well. Not only will it have a quarter of the space, it will be sharing the space with another unit. This heavily cramped facility, though, we are grateful for this in the aftermath of the storm, will hardly satisfy the long-term mission capability for the two units.
Over time, readiness levels to meet training requirements, retention and recruiting will all suffer greatly. Moreover space required to store unit equipment is insufficient. These same issues have also plagued the Joint Force Headquarters.
The post-hurricane plan for the Joint Force Headquarters has resulted in splitting the headquarters into several locations. This strategy is important for recovery of the State. However, facilities for the operation of the headquarters are not available to consolidate the organization at each location. These long-term operations will not be acceptable as this will result in critical management issues for the Joint Headquarters mission providing command and control to the Louisiana National Guard. This will result in poor oversight provided by the headquarters which could significantly affect the readiness for the National Guard.
My amendment seeks to restore the administration's request to rebuild these facilities in New Orleans. Replacement of these facilities should be provided to sustain the readiness posture of the Louisiana Army National Guard. Hurricane Katrina has severely damaged the facilities and these facilities must be replaced, and certainly, we need to send a signal to the Guard that we want to help them increase their readiness even before next hurricane season.
Many of my colleagues have done me the honor and privilege of coming to my state on CODELs to see the damage. Many of you have landed at Jackson Barracks and been accompanied by Louisiana Army National Guard members on your tours. Many of you have seen the heroic footage of what they did in the aftermath of the storm to rescue people out of the water. Many of you are very aware of their extreme sacrifice serving us overseas in Iraq.
Mr. Chairman, I want to enter into a colloquy with my colleagues. My understanding is the committee will work with me once information is provided from the Louisiana Army National Guard to make sure that these facilities are indeed rebuilt and repaired.
Mr. WALSH. Mr. Chairman, will the gentleman yield?
Mr. JINDAL. I yield to the gentleman from New York.
Mr. WALSH. Mr. Chairman, I thank the gentleman for yielding, and I appreciate his great concern for the National Guard facilities in the City of New Orleans and the State of Louisiana. We will continue to work on this issue as we move towards conference, and I am convinced we can resolve all the questions as we complete the work in the conference.
Mr. JINDAL. I want to thank the gentleman and my colleagues. Based on their commitment to work with me to make sure we do provide the funding to rebuild the facilities, my understanding is there are some questions that need to be answered and some additional information that needs to be obtained, but once that information is obtained, that we are confident we can do that before conference.
Based on that, I will seek unanimous consent to withdraw my amendment. Before I do that, I want to thank my colleagues on the committee for working with me on each of my three amendments.
Mr. Chairman, I ask unanimous consent to withdraw my amendment.