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South Mississippi Living 4/07

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Officials urge Congress to revise disaster-aid law

The Associated Press

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — The federal disaster-aid law largely ignores communities that harbor disaster evacuees, officials from cities and towns in Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas told U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu during a committee hearing.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency reimburses host communities for short-term sheltering and other basic assistance for evacuees. But it pays little to nothing for less quantifiable long-term impacts such as strains on transportation infrastructure and social services, participants said.

Mayor Kip Holden of Baton Rouge said federal red tape made it difficult for the city to absorb and help the estimated 250,000 people who fled Hurricane Katrina and took refuge in his city.

"While the impact on our communities was not the devastation our neighbors to the south suffered, our own resources were nevertheless strained and our lives impacted in ways that had never been experienced in history," he said during Monday's hearing.

Holden and local officials from Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi suggested a number of changes to federal law to help host communities better handle disaster evacuees.

The testimony, at the Old State Capitol, came as Congress considers overhauling the much-maligned Stafford Act, which covers the federal government's response to disasters.

Landrieu, who presided over the U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing, said the Stafford Act is unsuited to deal with a massive Katrina-like migration.

She was the lone senator at Monday's meeting of the Ad Hoc Subcommittee on Disaster Recovery of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, which is looking into the Stafford Act.

Holden said federal regulations need to be tweaked to allow for a quick transfer of funds to host communities to house and provide medical care to evacuees.

Recovery funding should take into account the financial toll caused by population shifts not just damage, he said. And population counts must be faster and more accurate, he said, to ensure the financial effects on a host community are understood

Lake Charles Mayor Randy Roach, Madison, Miss., Mayor Mary Hawkins-Butler and Robert Eckels, a former county judge for Harris County, Texas, who was the top emergency official in the Houston area during Katrina, also took part in the hearing.

Eckels said Harris County was not reimbursed for security at the Astrodome, which processed an estimated 65,000 Katrina evacuees, because it did not hire private security officers. FEMA would not reimburse the county for the overtime it paid local law enforcement officers who patrolled the dome.

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