EPW Hearing on Hurricane Katrina Hurricanes Katrina and Rita have had a devastating impact on the Gulf Coast of this nation. It is critical that we do everything that we can to improve the lives of our fellow Americans whose lives have been uprooted.
Hurricane Katrina hit Florida as a Category One hurricane, moved across the Gulf of Mexico, and hit the Gulf Coast of the nation as a strong Category Four hurricane. It passed within 10 to 15 miles of New Orleans. The winds, rain, and storm surge caused a levee breach that flooded 80% of the city. Over 1,000 people lost their lives and thousands more lost their homes. There are 90,000 square miles of declared disaster areas. Some people have characterized the environmental damage in New Orleans as catastrophic.
The agencies within this Committee’s jurisdiction have a major role in both the response and the recovery operations for Hurricane Katrina. Today is the first in a series of hearings on Hurricane Katrina where we will review the roles of agencies in our jurisdiction and hear from state and local governments and others on the response to and recovery from Hurricane Katrina.
Mr. Chairman, before we begin to evaluate the disaster response we witnessed after Hurricane Katrina and determine what needs to be changed, I think it is worthwhile to remember where we have been. Over the last 200 years, we have moved from an ad hoc approach to disaster response to a coordinated, orderly approach under the Stafford Act. On September 11th, the nation was struck by a terrorist attack. The effectiveness of the Stafford Act and FEMA helped reduce the impact of those events.
After September 11th, the Department of Homeland Security was formed. In what I believe is an example of extremely poor judgment that failed to take into account the unique mission of FEMA in responding to natural disasters, FEMA was moved into the Department.
In 2002, I opposed the formation of the Department of Homeland Security, in large part because of FEMA’s inclusion. At the time, I said: “I cannot understand why …we would jeopardize the Federal government's effective response to natural disasters by dissolving FEMA into this monolithic Homeland Security Department. I fear that FEMA will no longer be able to adequately respond to hurricanes, fires, floods, and earthquakes, begging the question, who will? ’’
With Katrina, I believe that we sadly learned the answer to that question: No one.
Unfortunately, we learned the hard way that we can not, we must not, neglect our natural disaster response capability. As Congress determines what the next steps are, we must ask ourselves: Are we witnessing a performance failure by the Federal agencies to execute their authorities, or are we missing needed authority? I believe we have witnessed a performance failure, not a problem with existing authorities. In the wake of this performance failure, Congress is stepping in.
There have been about 50 Katrina-related bills introduced. Some of them duplicate authority that exists in the Stafford Act or elsewhere. Some of them even go so far as to delegate the authority to the President to waive any Federal statute. So far, we have spent about $70 billion provided for hurricane relief. I am concerned that we are returning to the “ad hoc” response to disaster that the Stafford Act was designed to prevent. We need to return some order to our disaster response capabilities.
Several weeks ago, I joined my colleague, Senator Clinton, as a sponsor of two bills she introduced. The first establishes an independent commission to evaluate what happened after Hurricane Katrina and what steps need to be taken. The second removes FEMA from the Department of Homeland Security and re-establishes it as a stand-alone agency. These are two critical steps for the long-term.
In the short term, we need to be sure that Katrina recovery proceeds in a sensible manner, given what has occurred to date. Today, I will be joining my colleagues on the minority side of the EPW Committee in introducing legislation to respond to Hurricane Katrina. It is imperative that there is a process in place for rebuilding Katrina-impacted areas. Our bill focuses on the items in our jurisdiction – mainly, infrastructure redevelopment. Our legislation will provide direction to those agencies in our jurisdiction to ensure that Katrina recovery happens quickly, uses federal funds wisely, and protects public health and the environment. I hope that we will move quickly to pass this legislation in this Committee.
My questions in today’s hearing will focus on two main themes: First, in the apparent chaos of the response to Hurricane Katrina, what have your agencies accomplished, what do you need to accomplish your missions? What are your plans for the future recovery of the area, and do those plans make sense for the people of the Gulf Coast and the nation? Second, as we evaluate the Federal response mechanism, what lessons have you learned from Katrina, and what do you need for your Agencies to be more effective in the future?
I look forward to hearing from each of you today, and I also look forward to our second hearing in a few weeks where we will hear from parties outside the federal government on these same issues.