What Gulf Coast Congressman Gene Taylor wanted the Easter Bunny to bring him.
South Mississippi Living 4/07

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Louisiana finds a friend in South Carolina

Lawmaker moved by images of loss in Katrina aftermath
Monday, December 03, 2007
By Bill Walsh

WASHINGTON -- Legendary House Speaker Tip O'Neill's axiom that "all politics is local" seems to have been lost on Rep. James Clyburn.

Clyburn's South Carolina congressional district was spared the disastrous hurricane season of 2005, but the storms stirred the veteran Democratic lawmaker into taking the lead in helping the battered Gulf Coast, where he doesn't get a single vote and whose residents tend to elect Republicans anyway.

Since Democrats seized the House majority in January, Clyburn, the No.3 member of the House leadership, has shepherded more than a dozen hurricane-recovery bills to passage, made it a personal mission to waive the local match required for getting federal rebuilding dollars and, most recently, helped secure $3 billion to cover a shortfall in Louisiana's Road Home housing program.

Why would a guy from rural South Carolina invest so much time and energy on resurrecting the Gulf Coast?

For one thing, Clyburn knows hurricanes. He also has more than a passing acquaintance with devastating personal loss and the redemptive power of giving. And he was quick to recognize the political force of Hurricane Katrina as a commentary on what many saw as the Bush administration's incompetence and, Clyburn has said, latent racism, an insight that may even have impressed a wizened old pro like Tip O'Neill.

Like many Americans, Clyburn watched the flooding of New Orleans in real time on television. The image that has remained with him was of a man, dazed and walking in circles after making the awful choice of saving his kids over his wife as the floodwaters rose around his home.

"I just lost it," Clyburn, 67, said in a recent interview, his baritone voice a notch above a whisper. "What kind of a choice was that to make? It was transforming to me."

The horror he had seen unfolding on television rekindled some deeply personal memories.

Brushes with hurricanes

Clyburn was a teenager in 1954 when Category 4 Hurricane Hazel swept in off the Atlantic, killing more than 1,000 people and clawing its way across the Carolinas. He remembers most vividly the big oak tree felled in the winds that barely missed his home.

"I can never get that out of my mind," he said.

Thirty-five years later, Hurricane Hugo, which having caused $7 billion in damage was then the most costly natural disaster in U.S. history, battered his house in Charleston and left an indelible aural impression.

"That night was the worst sound I have ever heard in my life," Clyburn said. "It was like a locomotive going through. You are lying in bed just waiting for the roof to cave in."

Hugo's aftermath plunged Clyburn into a confusing and frustrating world of insurance adjusters and housing contractors that gave him a sense of what was to come for the hundreds of thousands of residents in Louisiana and Mississippi whose homes were flooded or blown away in the storms.

His personal brushes with hurricanes helped him empathize with the fears and frustrations of those along the Gulf Coast after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. But it was a fire that helped him understand the loss.

When he was 12, he said, his boyhood home burned to the ground. He and his family escaped with only the clothes they were wearing. Everything else was lost. As he stood in the street clad only in his underwear, a neighbor approached him and gave him a jacket.

"I know what it means to lose everything," he said.

Clyburn pressed the issue

As head of the Katrina Task Force, Clyburn organized trips to the Gulf Coast for members of Congress to commemorate the first and second anniversaries of the storm. He scheduled meetings with dozens of local officials and their suggestions formed the basis of legislation he then pushed through the House.

In January, he hired Aranthan "A.J." Jones, the former chief of staff to Rep. William Jefferson, D-New Orleans, who knows the disaster zone well.

"I can't say enough for how much Jim Clyburn has done," said Rep. Charlie Melancon, D-Napoleonville. "He never looks back. He never gives us excuses."

Clyburn was particularly intent on waiving the 10 percent share that local communities were expected to pay under the Stafford Act as their share of disaster recovery. President Bush had reduced the share from 25 percent to 10 percent and fronted Gulf Coast states the money to pay. But he stubbornly refused to go further.

At meeting after meeting at the White House between the president and congressional leaders, Clyburn just as stubbornly continued to press the issue. Fellow lawmakers dubbed him "Congressman Stafford" for his single-mindedness.

Clyburn saw Bush's refusal to waive the Stafford Act partly in racial terms. He said the requirement had been lifted after the Sept. 11 attacks and after Hurricane Andrew and Hurricane Iniki, which hit Hawaii. Why was this president digging in his heels on this disaster, the costliest in U.S. history?

Clyburn provided his own answer in a commencement speech in May to graduates at Southern University in Baton Rouge. It was because so many of the victims of Katrina were black, he said.

"I truly believe that if the demographics of the affected areas were different, the response of the federal government would have been different," said Clyburn, who was elected in 1992 as the first black congressman from South Carolina since Reconstruction.

As the chief vote-counter for Democrats in the House, Clyburn has a well-tuned political radar. He was quick to recognize that the Bush administration's flubbed response to Katrina could work as a potent political issue in the 2006 midterm elections.

Job isn't seen as done

The president has frequently touted the more than $100 billion in federal aid sent to the Gulf Coast and has promised to rebuild the region. But in weeks leading up to the elections, polls showed that Americans believed Bush hadn't done enough, and Clyburn said the discontent, along with anger over the war in Iraq, were the twin engines that propelled Democrats into power on Capitol Hill.

But not everyone on the Gulf Coast was convinced that the Democratic takeover would mean change.

Rep. Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette, said Democrats likewise focused their attention on Hurricane Katrina while downplaying the significance of Hurricane Rita in southwest Louisiana, which he represents. Boustany conceded that the Democrats passed recovery bills that helped all parts of the state, but he was miffed that they left his district off their itinerary when they visited the Gulf Coast in August.

Melancon, a loyal Democrat, openly questioned his party's commitment to hurricane recovery in February. A day later he was summoned before what Clyburn described as a "very disturbed" House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Melancon insisted that the leadership had promised to take up Katrina-recovery legislation in the first 100 hours of the new Congress and had reneged. He pointed to a newspaper story from August 2006, which quoted Clyburn saying as much.

The next day, Clyburn filed legislation to waive the 10 percent Stafford Act match and called a meeting of key committee chairs to expedite hurricane-recovery legislation.

"I think he was wrong on the substance. We were doing a lot already," Clyburn said. "But I understood his frustration."

Since then, the House has churned out hurricane-recovery legislation at a dizzying pace. It's been so rapid, in fact, that this summer much of it got jammed up in the Senate whose arcane rules sometimes seem to encourage delays.

More than two years after the fact, Clyburn doesn't see the job as done. He wants Congress to approve the tens of billions of dollars that would be necessary to create Category 5 hurricane protection in south Louisiana.

He has no illusions that the region will suddenly swing into the Democratic fold. For Clyburn, it is more complicated than that.

Shortly after Katrina, he recalls spotting Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss., on the House floor. Taylor's home had been destroyed, and Clyburn wanted to do something to show how much he cared. He remembered as a youth standing in the street after his house burned down. He bought Taylor a jacket and handed it to him.

"He said, 'That's OK, I don't need a jacket,' " Clyburn said Taylor told him. "I said, 'It's not for you, it's for me.' "

Bill Walsh can be reached at or (202) 383-7817.

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