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Hearing of the Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management Subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee - Five Years After Katrina: Where We Are and What We Have Learned for Future Disasters?


Location: Washington, DC

Today, the Subcommittee will receive testimony on the recovery status of communities and infrastructure through the Public Assistance program implemented by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. It is unfortunate that five years after these devastating storms, we are still discussing improvements to recovery efforts.

Hurricane Katrina proved to be the costliest natural disaster in American history. The storm had a massive physical impact on the land, affecting 90,000 square miles, roughly the size of Great Britain, and hundreds of thousands of citizens. I saw the impact of this storm first hand. I visited St. Bernard Parish in Louisiana and I was astounded to see homes that did not have water marks to indicate the level of flooding; because the flood waters had reached levels above their roofs. I have no doubt that Mr. Cao and Mr. Taylor, who is sitting with the Subcommittee today, have many more first hand examples.

Hurricane Rita struck less than a month later and broke Hurricane Katrina's record as the most intense hurricane ever in the Gulf of Mexico. The storm also climbed from a category 2 to a category 5 storm in less than 24 hours with the fastest intensification of any tropical cyclone in history. As a result, this storm forced 3,000,000 residents to evacuate their homes, many of whom were evacuees from Hurricane Katrina.

Previously, when our nation has faced large or unusual disasters, FEMA was quick to adapt and provide solutions to unique problems that would arise, often working with Congress on those solutions.

After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, things were very different. FEMA was an agency within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and not an independent agency that reported directly to the President and Congress. As I have said previously, FEMA's performance as an agency has suffered since its inclusion in the DHS in 2003.

Even long after the response to these storms, the agency's placement in DHS has had a detrimental effect on the residents of the Gulf Coast. There were delays in decision making, which meant that delivery of critical assistance to citizens was delayed. I am still deeply concerned that, even with the new experienced leadership at FEMA, if FEMA remains in DHS it will not be able to respond to disasters in the manner the nation needs and expects.

However, we will also hear testimony that things are improving. FEMA is finally bringing solutions to protracted problems, through the congressionally-mandated arbitration process, other forms of dispute resolution, and even such simple solutions of placing FEMA officials in the same city as the State officials. This should have come years sooner, but the last Administration refused to bring common sense solutions to problems, or in many instances, acknowledge that there were problems at all in recovery efforts. Most of the recovery steps that we will hear about today are items that FEMA had the authority to implement five years ago, but was unable to do so because of DHS' bureaucracy.

Unfortunately, this is not only a problem for the long recovery from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, but for ongoing and future disasters as well. There are still authorities that can speed recovery that FEMA is not yet utilizing. For example, today we will hear about steps being taken to improve the rebuilding of schools in Louisiana, under a provision in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2008 (P.L. 110-161). This provision has allowed a Recovery School District (RSD) to look at the schools as a larger system rather than focusing on rebuilding each facility. Through this process, and with a required plan, the RSD will consolidate 127 campuses to 87 campuses The provision in the Consolidated Appropriations Act contains many of the same elements as section 311 of H.R. 3377, the ""Disaster Response, Recovery, and Mitigation Enhancement Act of 2009'', which the Committee recently reported, including the very important requirement that planning must occur before the entire system is rebuilt. However, as we noted when we reported the bill, FEMA has the discretion and authority to do most of what is in section 311 under its existing authority. I am pleased that FEMA has noted in its written testimony that it is looking at how the Agency can move in this direction with its existing authority.

Another more troubling example is what is known as "estimating costs". In their written statements, a number of today's witnesses discuss how the Public Assistance program could be improved if the program allowed State and local governments to be paid based on an estimate of costs of reconstruction rather than waiting for costs to be incurred before payment is made. FEMA not only has the authority to do this, but is required to do so. Almost ten years ago, President Clinton signed into the law the Disaster Mitigation Act of 2000 (P.L. 106-390), which requires FEMA to develop a system where projects are paid for on the basis of cost estimates. To date, FEMA has not yet published the required rule to implement this statutory mandate. It seems apparent that this is another example of how DHS has impeded the rulemaking and policy development process at FEMA.

I hope that today FEMA will provide an explanation as to when and how it will implement the authorities already provided. I welcome our witnesses and I am pleased that we will examine these important issues today.

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