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Shuster addresses cost of Katrina damage

October 06, 2005|by DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, PA.

chambersburg@herald-mail.com

The playing field and first 10 or 15 rows of the Superdome in New Orleans are below sea level and U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster said Congress needs to think hard before deciding whether to fund rebuilding that or any other facility that could be destroyed by floods like the one caused by Hurricane Katrina.

"I think the answer to that is no ... You're throwing common sense out the window," Shuster, R-9th, said Wednesday, a day after returning from a trip to the Gulf Coast, his second in two weeks. He went with nine other House members, most of them on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which has jurisdiction over much of the reconstruction.

The trip included stops in Baton Rouge, La., and New Orleans, where the delegation spoke with Mayor Ray Nagin, and Mobile, Ala., along with a helicopter flyover of Mississippi, said Shuster. They also met with U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, who is coordinating federal recovery efforts, he said.

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Nagin announced Tuesday the city is laying off 3,000 municipal workers because it lacks funds to pay their wages. Shuster said Congress might this week revise the law governing how Federal Emergency Management Agency funds are distributed to state and local governments.

Shuster said it makes no sense only to allow federal funds to be used to pay overtime for municipal employees when the city cannot afford to keep them on the payroll.

"They have no money coming into their coffers," Shuster said of cities such as Biloxi, Miss., and New Orleans. The law needs greater flexibility on how federal dollars are spent, he said.

What should be rebuilt behind the levees that broke and resulted in so much of the property damage, however, is another matter, said Shuster, who also serves on a select committee examining what went wrong with the initial relief efforts.

The federal government should not be paying to rebuild structures at or below sea level unless changes are made to assure they can withstand future floods, he said.

In the future, the federal government and private insurers might require more stringent construction standards, or not write policies, in some flood-prone areas. Those who decide to rebuild in such areas have to accept the financial responsibility from a future flood, he said.

Rebuilding roads, bridges, pipelines and port facilities, however, will be a big part of the federal response, Shuster said.

"The Mississippi is an integral part of our transportation system," he said.

The most immediate problems, Shuster said, are housing and debris removal.

Baton Rouge has swelled to twice its normal population of 250,000 and officials there believe 50,000 or more evacuees could choose to make it their permanent home, he said.

The government should not be building "FEMA towns," where people are housed in large temporary facilities far from their homes. Temporary housing should be close to evacuees' homes to speed their return to normal lives, he said.

In Mississippi, the estimate Shuster was given for debris removal was the equivalent of 400 football fields piled 50 feet high with refuse. Debris removal there, however, is proceeding at a faster pace than New Orleans because more people have been able to return home.

In New Orleans, contractors are not clearing debris from private property without the owners' permission for fear of lawsuits, Shuster said. That is hampering cleanup because much of the city remains vacant.

Estimates on rebuilding the region are as high as $300 billion, but Shuster does not believe the federal price tag will be that high because state and local governments, insurance companies and businesses should pick up part of the tab.

The cost will still be high and "we're going to have to find offsets for the federal response to Katrina," Shuster said. Spending should be reduced in all departments, not just by revisions to the federal highway and energy bills, he said.

"Every department is going to have to feel the pain," he said.

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