Katrina Whips Congress Into Action

In their emergency session, lawmakers will consider both urgent aid and creating a better response plan for the future

By Eamon Javers

Congress is rushing back to Washington from summer vacation to take up a $10 billion disaster-relief measure for the victims of hurricane Katrina. And already, lawmakers are weighing a wide range of legislative measures to both respond to Katrina and prepare better for future disasters, whether natural or terrorist-related.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) convened the Senate into session on Sept. 1, and House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) prepped his fellow lawmakers to rush through a spending package. "We'll make sure that every bit of aid is available," says Senator Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) "That's what people did with New York," he adds, recalling the flood of relief money in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

But the hurricane may also take some measures that had been relegated to the back-burner and move them front and center on the congressional agenda. Last spring, the Senate subcommittee on Disaster Prediction & Prevention began putting together a bill to improve national disaster communications in response to the Asian tsunami which wreaked havoc in December, 2004. Now that process will be speeded up, says Senator Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), chairman of the subcommittee. "I don't think there was enough of a sense of urgency until the last few months," DeMint says. "It's frustrating and terribly tragic."


  Eerily, the subcommittee considered the ramifications of a hurricane hitting New Orleans two months ago. In testimony on June 29, Senator David Vitter (R-LA) rattled off scenarios of what would happen, ranging from a Category 3 hurricane, which he said would deposit 14 feet of water in New Orleans, to a Category 4 storm, which would leave 18 feet, he said. Katrina, a Category 4, has left much of New Orleans and the surrounding area under as much as 20 feet of water, as levees broke.

"This isn't a simulation of World War Three, or The Day After movie, or of Atlantis -- although one day it could be Atlantis," Vitter said at the time. "This is a real, computer-generated, model of the impact of a hurricane hitting New Orleans." Vitter complained that Congress wasn't willing to spend the millions necessary for disaster prevention but typically rushed to spend billions after a tragedy struck.

DeMint says he'll announce a bill within the next two or three weeks to create a national All-Hazards Alert System that would take advantage of technological advances in cell phones, BlackBerries, and the Internet to allow government to provide disaster information in real time -- and to get messages back from stranded citizens. As with New Orleans now, "it would be great to know where all the survivors are," DeMint says.


  Information the government could stream out from the proposed system includes satellite pictures of the devastated areas, maps to high ground or secure areas, and detailed information on what to do in the case of a chemical or biological attack. "We think the technology is already available, if the government could send the signals in a way that the servers could pick up," he says.

DeMint condemned looting and lawlessness in the devastated areas. "It's a bad reflection on all of us as a nation," he says. "It's an embarrassment amid a tragedy." The subcommittee will also be looking for ideas how to combat looting in future national disasters. "We could look at punishments being elevated, because the responsibility of the individual becomes so important in these times to help others and not to hurt," he says.

But overall, DeMint gives officials in charge of the disaster good marks: "Local and state governments did everything they could to get people out, and the message got out there," he says.


  So why were so many people left in the affected areas? "I think what we had was a little bit of hurricane fatigue, where we had several warnings over the years and nothing happened. Well, unfortunately, this time it did," DeMint adds.

Other congressional committees announced they'll jump in with hearings, too. The House Energy & Natural Resources Committee will meet Sept. 7 to examine the impact of the hurricane on gas supplies.

"We have between 1 million to 2 million barrels of day of oil production in the Gulf of Mexico that has been shut down because of the hurricane," says panel Chairman Joe Barton (R-Tex.). "That's about 25% of our production capacity in the U.S. We also have more than 25% of our nation's refining capacity in various stages of shutdown."


  The Senate Energy Committee will also hold hearings Sept. 7. Although some pollution controls have already been eased since the hurricane to spur gasoline supplies, House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) fired off a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency calling for more action, including suspending controls on sulfur content and lifting seasonal adjustments in supplies.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) urged Americans to be careful to choose reputable disaster relief organizations with their donations. "I encourage them to make sure the charities they choose match their good intentions," Grassley said. "A little research can go a long way to stopping the con artists who try to turn this tragedy into a profit-making venture."

With President Bush sending National Guard troops into the region and opening the spigots on the nation's Strategic Petroleum Reserve, now Congress is getting in on the response, too.


Javers is a correspondent in BusinessWeek's Washington bureau

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