By Bruce Alpert
Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., Wednesday called on Congress to implement long overdue reforms in federal disaster response so they can be implemented for Hurricane Sandy. Landrieu made the request as she presided over a hearing of her Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on the hurricane, which led to disaster declarations for nine states with most of the damage in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La, presided over a hearing Wednesday by her Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Hurricane Sandy. The Associated Press archive
The storm led to 490,000 people registering for temporary housing and other individual assistance from the federal government.
Among the Landrieu proposed reforms, many of which she has been pushing for since shortly after Hurricane Katrina, are:
Advanced funding for key projects based on reliable estimates so work can be done be quickly.
Eliminate penalties for alternative projects so communities can "rebuild flexibly and strategically as opposed to restoring every facility to its pre-disaster condition in the same exact location even when it's in it a flood vulnerable location.
Authorize comprehensive awards so that communities can rebuild facilities such as schools, medical clinics, police, fire stations and water treatment facilities "in a comprehensive and strategic manner."
Establish arbitration panels to resolve disputes over funding between the Federal Emergency Management Agency and local communities. Landrieu legislation set up such a process for Hurricane Katrina and she said it helped move forward long stalled funding needed to rebuild New Orleans, including a replacement for Charity Hospital.
Among her other proposals, allow families to use FEMA individual assistance funds for disaster-related child care and allow cost-effective temporary housing alternatives, such as repairing rental units, to address housing needs.
Landrieu said that she has written President Barack Obamaasking him to request "at least 5 percent" of supplemental disaster funding for Corps of Engineers construction projects that will reduce "taxpayers exposure to future flood risks."
"Our government continually under-invests in flood protection infrastructure, and U.S. communities and taxpayers incur exorbitant disaster assistance costs as a result," Landrieu said.
Craig Fugate, FEMA's administrator, said he agrees with Landrieu that providing funding based on solid estimates makes sense, both for the local governments and the federal government. But Fugate said he would look for guidance from Congress on what to if cost estimates turn out either too low or too high. For instance, he asked, whether any cost savings would be returned to the federal government, or be kept by the local governments.
During the hearing, several senators from the Northeast states hit by Super Storm Sandy thanked Landrieu for quickly offering up lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina.
"That was extremely kind," said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y, about Landrieu's offer to "stand by New York the way New York stood by Louisiana during Hurricane Katrina."
Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan, assigned by President Obama to oversee Sandy recovery efforts, said the administration plans to follow Landrieu's suggestion and recommend in its funding proposal that some of it be used for mitigation so that future major storms don't cause as much damage.
Landrieu, in her remarks, said she will push to come up with an emergency spending bill for the Northeast that doesn't require spending offsets.
"Congress did not require offsets after 9/11 and we did not do so after hurricanes Katrina and Rita," Landrieu said. In responding to a catastrophic disaster such as Hurricane Sandy, Congress should focus on helping those in need and rebuilding communities, not on politics."
But that position is likely to run into problems with House Republicans who have argued that any new funding, emergency or not, should be offset with cuts in other programs.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., said he had heard the Obama administration is going to request emergency funding of between $45 billion and $55 billion for Hurricane Sandy. Donovan, the HUD secretary, said the administration is still compiling cost estimates.
Lautenberg said he and other Northeast senators are going to be pushing for a robust federal response.
"I can assure we are going to pull a Landrieu if we need to," said Lautenberg, alluding to the Louisiana's senator's persistent requests for Katrina funding.