Congress Passes $51.8 Billion Aid Package; Democrats Call For Independent Inquiry

Families wait for aid as President Bush pledges to cut red tape.

As Hurricane Katrina's victims continued the long journey toward reclaiming their lives on Thursday, Congress passed a disaster-relief bill that provides $51.8 billion in additional emergency aid for dispossessed evacuees.

The Senate and House passed the bill as an original $10.5 billion emergency-relief package, approved Friday night, was expected to run out, CNN reports. The new plan allocates more than $1 billion a day for recovery and reconstruction over the next five weeks.

President Bush, who has called for a national day of prayer for hurricane victims on September 16, has pledged to cut red tape in order to provide immediate assistance for those in need, including giving each family $2,000 in disaster assistance to cover the basic necessities of food, water, shelter and medical needs. He told the survivors the government "is going to be with you for the long haul."

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said Democrats support the new bill, proposed by the president, but added, "It doesn't do enough. It has serious flaws. Just throwing money at [the problem] is not enough." Reid said 90 percent of the money in the package would go to the Federal Emergency Management Agency and that, "after everything that happened, does anyone think it should go to FEMA?"

"We have a lot of work to do ... we can't be distracted by partisanship, by finger-pointing, by name-calling," said Representative Dennis Hastert (R-IL) at a press conference on Thursday (September 8). Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) also said there was a "systemwide" failure in the response but promised that a bipartisan congressional investigation would get to the bottom of the problems (see "Federal Agency Delayed Katrina Response, According To Internal Memo").

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But some Democrats plan to boycott the Republican-led inquiry, insisting that an independent commission spearhead the investigation, according to Reuters. Critics within Congress say a query led by Republican leaders would be a "sham" and would not produce an objective assessment of how thousands of displaced locals were stranded days after the storm hit.

Reid said Democrats are prepared to move forward with a plan that would bypass FEMA and get aid directly to the survivors of the disaster. Also, Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana threatened to hold out for more funding for her storm-wrecked state, possibly holding up the passage of the latest relief bill.

Some of that aid, in the form of $2,000 debit cards from the American Red Cross, was held up for a brief period Thursday when the Houston Astrodome was put on lockdown. As thousands of anxious and confused people waited in long lines snaking around the stadium, officials stopped the flow of traffic in and out of the venue to protect those waiting for the cards, according to a CNN report.

Many of those people thought they were waiting in line for $2,000 debit cards to be distributed by FEMA, but the disbursement of those cards has been delayed for unspecified reasons, CNN reports. In Biloxi, Mississippi, some families had been told they might have to wait another 14 days for the FEMA cards.

Even as politicians continued bickering, schools in Houston were opening their doors to 40,000 additional students displaced due to the disaster.

Elsewhere in the region:

  • The confirmed death toll in Mississippi so far is 201. FEMA has hired a contractor to remove the dead bodies left behind by receding floodwaters and has ordered more than 25,000 body bags to Louisiana for what it expects will be a high death toll. FEMA is also sending 100,000 trailers to the area for temporary housing.
  • An estimated 10,000 workers who lost their jobs because of the disaster filed for unemployment benefits last week, according to The Associated Press. Officials expect a total of 400,000 lost jobs in the coming months.
  • Three truckloads bearing $2 million worth of high-fashion clothes seized by government agents over import quota violations arrived at the Astrodome on Wednesday for distribution to evacuees. According to Reuters, the 100,000 items were the first in what is expected to be a more than $168 million worth of clothing to be distributed. While some are fakes, much of the clothing comes from popular labels such as Fubu and Code Blue.
  • Officials hope to clear out and close the Astrodome sometime next week and send the more than 15,000 victims there to other temporary shelters, according to CNN. Plans to move some of the evacuees to a pair of cruise ships in the Galveston harbor were canceled Wednesday due to a lack of interest and fears by some of being housed on the water.
  • Vice President Dick Cheney and his wife, Lynne, toured the Gulf Coast Thursday and spoke with local officials and emergency teams as they toured sites in Gulfport, Mississippi, and New Orleans. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was also slated to visit the region and first lady Laura Bush was scheduled to drop in at schools in Mississippi.
  • Tainted floodwaters have tested positive for bacteria 10 times higher than acceptable safety limits and show signs of E. Coli and other cholera-like bacteria, according to officials (see "Officials Worried About Disease As Thousands Refuse To Evacuate New Orleans"). The deaths of four evacuees are believed to have resulted from bacterial infections caused by contaminated water that entered open wounds.
  • Even as cleanup begins, two more hurricanes and a tropical storm were brewing in the Atlantic. At press time, Hurricanes Maria and Nate and Tropical Storm Ophelia were not expected to head inland toward the devastated areas.
  • [This story was originally published at 2:24 p.m. ET on 9.8.05]

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