(Un)natural disaster

Congressman Walden reflects on disaster, reports on aid efforts

September 17, 2005

U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., said there are many lessons to be learned in the aftermath of America’s worst natural disaster.

He supports a full investigation into the local, state and federal response to the Gulf Coast plight. But Walden believes those questions need to be put on hold until the immediate needs of the storm refugees have been addressed.

“To put the scope of what we are dealing with in perspective, the hurricane devastated an area roughly the size of Oregon. And a population comparable to that of Portland was displaced,” he said. “The scope of this crisis is clearly beyond anything that we’ve ever dealt with and we’re still trying to get our hands around it.”

He said there are many decisions ahead about how to rebuild the city of New Orleans, which is still largely inundated with flood waters. Walden anticipates that questions will be raised over whether the portion of the city that sits below sea level should be rebuilt at all. When Katrina hit almost two weeks ago, about 80 percent of the city was swamped by a deluge from the Mississippi delta after the protective levee was breached in several places.

Once the major reconstruction decisions have been made, Walden said it will be time to sit down and examine what worked and what didn’t in government response. He said a joint bipartisan oversight committee has already been formed to tackle that task.

“I don’t think that FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) or the local and state governments were as prepared as we would have hoped. We need to take a look at that,” said Walden.

“What we need not to do is turn this thing into some sort of partisan blame game. It is important that we work together to find the problems and to fix them.”

He credits the armed forces for restoring order in New Orleans and saving many lives following the catastrophic event in late August.

“This was the biggest mobilization of the U.S. Military that we’ve ever faced. When they got there things got much better,” said Walden.

As the only broadcast radio owner in the House, Walden is very interested in learning more about the breakdown in communications. The House Telecommunication and Internet Sub-committee on which he serves will be holding hearings on that issue. To date, Walden said the House has nine different committees working to better understand the long-term affects of Katrina on the country’s economy.

Meanwhile, the following actions have already been taken by the House on behalf of homeless citizens in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

* $62 million of emergency funding has been approved for work in the coastal communities.

* An inspector general’s position has been created to closely monitor the expenditure of funds to ensure they are spent wisely and fraud is prevented.

* An additional $4.2 billion in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Funds has been made available for displaced residents.

* FEMA has been authorized to borrow up to $2 billion more for the national flood insurance program to ensure quick payment of homeowner and business claims.

* College students can obtain a waiver from repayment of federal education grants because of their forced withdrawal from classes.

* Federal courts in the flood zones have been allowed to hold special sessions outside of their geographic boundaries to stop lengthy delays in processing of civil and criminal cases.

Walden said the Senate has approved the additional flood insurance program but has not yet acted on the aid to families and college students. However, he does not anticipate any political roadblocks in the path to help families that have lost everything.

He said President George W. Bush has also helped keep fuel deliveries on schedule by waiving the maritime Jones Act. He is now utilizing non-coastwise-qualified vessels to help distribute petroleum products wherever they are needed.

The Environmental Protection Agency has lifted some clean air requirements to accommodate uniform delivery of gasoline throughout the nation. Currently, Walden said there are 28 different “boutique” formulas for production of gasoline – and each state chooses which mixtures to allow. For the time being, all prohibitions have been lifted to meet supply demands.

Walden said it was distressing to watch the looters and rioters in New Orleans following the disaster. He hopes that the perpetrators of rapes and other crimes will be brought to justice for their offenses against storm victims. He said the forced cancellation of the federally issued debit card for $2,000 because of many fraudulent uses was also unfortunate.

“Whenever you have a disaster there are people in society who will take advantage of others. There were just some awful things that happened in that sea of humanity,” said Walden.

However, he said the generosity of Hood River residents, and Oregonians, was a source of pride.

“We’ve had such an outpouring of support from our community, the National Guard, Red Cross and private groups that it’s really been remarkable – but not unexpected,” said Walden. “Oregon has a proud history of lending a hand to those in need and I think that we’re seeing that once again.”

Walden, and many of his peers, would like to personally tour the Gulf Coast devastation zone. However, they have been asked by emergency response teams not to journey to the area at this time. The thought behind that request, said Walden, is that setting up security for unnecessary visits by dignitaries will take valuable time away from recovery and rebuilding efforts.

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