A picture of Senator Mary L. Landrieu
Mary L.
Former Democrat LA
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    Hurricane Sandy

    by Former Senator Mary L. Landrieu

    Posted on 2013-01-22

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    LANDRIEU. Madam President, I came to the floor this afternoon to speak briefly about Hurricane Sandy and what the Senate and the House could and should be doing to help the survivors of this catastrophic disaster that occurred now over 3 months ago on the northeast coast. We from Louisiana are very familiar, unfortunately, with disasters. We have had quite a number over the past several years. Unfortunately, I have become an expert on disasters. I don't want to be, but I am becoming one as chair of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and as a leader from Louisiana. All of us, whether we are school board members, city council members, mayors, parish officials or Governors from Louisiana, are becoming experts on disasters because we are having a lot of them.

    So I came to the floor to say just a few things this afternoon about Hurricane Sandy. First, I wish to begin by saying the people of the Northeast--and they don't need me to tell them this--have a wonderfully strong delegation in the Senate, Senators Schumer, Gillibrand, Menendez, and Lautenberg. Of course, in Maryland--though we don't hear much about Maryland, there were one or two small counties that were terribly affected in Maryland--and Senator Cardin and Senator Mikulski have been, day in and day out, working with me and with many others, of course, trying to fashion a robust and smart response to the disaster on the East Coast.

    We want it to be smart because the taxpayers don't want to waste money on things that don't work. Of course, the survivors want it to be smart because they need us to do our best work now. We can't be late and sloppy and bureaucratic. They have churches to rebuild and faith- based organizations to get back up and running. There are schools and libraries and, most importantly, of course, their homes and their businesses. So this is very important work.

    It has been difficult because there are many different philosophies about how to tackle this. I have made my positions fairly clear on certain aspects such as offsets, et cetera. But today I wanted to come to the floor to just acknowledge the extraordinary work of the delegation--led in large measure by Senator Schumer--of Members who have been absolutely rolling up their sleeves at every meeting and trying to build bipartisan support, which we have to do in the Senate. The House can sometimes get away with sending things over here with only the Republicans voting for it and no Democrats, but over here we can't get anything done unless it is done with all of us together. It is just a different set of rules in the Senate, so we have had to work very hard.

    Senators Schumer and Gillibrand and other Members worked very hard to get together the necessary votes to get that $60 billion out of here a couple weeks ago. The House, of course, unfortunately, stripped away some provisions but, happily--happily--they left some of the best reforms we have been able to think of in the last 4 or 5 years in the bill, and that is what I wish to talk about today.

    I am a big believer in sending aid to the people in America who need it. We send a lot of aid overseas, and we will sure send a lot of aid when we rebuild Afghanistan and Iraq, but I am a real big believer in sending aid to our own taxpayers when their homes are flooded or tornadoes have taken out their area or fires have raged out of control or major storms have hit their area. I am a big believer that when people pay taxes all their life--middle-class families as well as the poor and the working poor, as well as the wealthy, who pay a lot of taxes--they deserve their government to respond when they are at a very dark moment. That is what is happening on the east coast, and these constituents and citizens of ours could not get this help. They need it more quickly.

    We are moving as fast as we can--not fast enough for this Senator, but hopefully we can get this vote and this bill to the President's desk. I know President Obama will be happy to sign this and is eager to sign it. I wish to also say thank you to President Obama for his strong support of a robust supplemental and to say how proud I am to have worked with his Cabinet, many of whom are involved in this recovery, and particularly the Secretary of HUD, who is probably one of the most able leaders. All the Cabinet members are very able, but the Secretary of HUD is particularly knowledgeable about rebuilding in a more coordinated fashion because he actually got to practice on us down in the gulf coast. We were kind of like the guinea pigs. Hopefully, we have worked out a lot of the problems and we can take all the best practices and lessons learned.

    But Shaun Donovan will do a great job leading that effort on the east coast, I have no doubt, with both a very strong Democratic Governor and a very strong Republican Governor--Governor Christie and Governor Cuomo in that area--along with Mayor Bloomberg and Mayor Cory Booker and so many other small-town officials involved in the recovery. They will have a great friend and a knowledgeable and reliable partner in Secretary of HUD Shaun Donovan.

    But let me go into just a few things we were able to redesign, thinking that our citizens and our constituents want government to be leaner. They want government, most importantly, to be smarter and more efficient, and I could not agree more. We have tried, at least in the disaster recovery--when the response to Katrina and Rita was such a disaster itself--to reshape some of this and make it better and smarter. So we put some very effective and smartly designed programs into the Sandy supplemental.

    I want to begin by thanking my friend and colleague from the State of Mississippi, Senator Cochran, who joined me in introducing the Disaster Recovery Act in 2011 that contained many of these reforms. Our States have endured the same series of disasters and bureaucratic roadblocks to recovery over the past eight years, and we are determined to prevent communities in the northeast from experiencing the same inefficiency and waste. His contributions to the Gulf Coast's recovery and the development of this legislation have been tremendous, and I am grateful for his partnership in this endeavor.

    I also wish to thank my House colleagues, particularly Congressman Shuster, Congressman Rahall, Congressman Denham, Delegate Holmes- Norton, Congressman Mica, who is the outgoing chair of the committee over there and was so instrumental in helping to fashion some of this, Congresswoman Slaughter, Congresswoman Lowey, Congressman Alexander and Congressman Richmond. In particular, [[Page S37]] Cedric Richmond, who is from Louisiana and a dear friend, along with Congressman Alexander, from my home State, were very instrumental in helping their colleagues--one is a Republican, one is a Democrat--kind of understand why it is important to have these reforms stay in the bill, and they were successful. I am very grateful to them for that.

    One of the things from the several lists of things that were in this bill--and that I want to put into the Record--I will just go over and highlight briefly.

    No. 1, in the Sandy supplemental, it will reauthorize two expired pilot programs from the post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act that allowed FEMA to repair rental units as a cost-effective temporary housing alternative to trailers and mobile homes and to utilize expedited debris removal procedures.

    This might not seem very interesting to people, unless you and your family are looking at living in an 8-by-16 or 8-by-24 trailer for the next 6 months. Then you are very interested. In the old days, when Katrina happened, all people were given were trailers and, in some instances, with formaldehyde in them, which made for a lovely and very healthy way to live for 6 months. We don't want to go over the nightmares of what happened after Katrina and Rita, but we decided we had to give our citizens some other options besides trailers. So if something would happen in Massachusetts, Madam President, your Governor and your local officials could come together and maybe be a little bit creative in thinking about some rental repairs, where maybe people could move into some of the blighted properties. That would also help with the blight. Instead of spending $120,000 per trailer, maybe we could do a little investing in some blight reduction and, at the same time, giving people a temporary place to live. So that is smart. I think taxpayers appreciate it when we try to spend their money in a wiser, built-to-last kind of way. That is what the Sandy supplemental allows.

    It also allows the State to draw down a portion of its hazard mitigation funds from FEMA in order to leverage mitigation opportunities earlier in the reconstruction process. In the old days, it would take 18 to 36 months for funding to become available, in some instances, to rebuild a school. That is too long. Can you imagine a community going 3 years without even getting their school started? I realize sometimes it takes a long time to build things, but you don't want to wait 3 years before you start. So the way we do it now, without spending any more money, is just allowing the Federal Government to push out some of the front money to the locals so they can get started on mitigation projects much sooner. So that is a very smart reform that is included.

    In addition, we also provide grants on the basis of reliable fixed estimates for rebuilding damaged infrastructure and facilities and expedited removal of storm debris. This approach will be faster, cheaper, and more effective. The Public assistance program as currently designed may be one of the most dysfunctional programs in the entire Federal Government and will not work for this disaster. Under the current approach, initial damage estimates are often incomplete. Projects must be reversioned multiple times. Decisions are often not made in writing. Frequent staff turnover leads to decision reversals. Hundreds of meetings result in incalculable administrative waste. And it can take years for even a small project to be completed. And let me just put this in English.

    What this means is in the old days when Katrina hit--and people are not going to believe it when I say this, but it is true, and I will put this in the Record so people can go find it. But in the old days we would have to take measurements and pictures of a tree to determine how wide the branch was because if it was more than 3 inches you got reimbursed, and if it was less than that you didn't. We would have to go take pictures of trees where the debris came down to try to get the paperwork necessary for the reimbursement. Those days are hopefully over with.

    We will now do kind of an estimate just like any normal, rational person would do. You know from past storms how much debris is usually there. You could sort of measure that. There are ways--not just subjective but objective, like geospatial modeling, without having to take pictures of limbs on trees and measure them individually--which is a complete waste of time and wholly irrational and, of course, survivors who are standing there without a house are wondering why government officials are going around taking pictures of shrubs. So we need to move past that. Hopefully, we will with some of this legislation.

    No. 4 codifies temporary legislative measures that were enacted to facilitate smarter recovery, including third-party arbitration, eliminating penalties on alternate projects, and consolidating facilities into a single project. This was my most important thing, and I would like to take a minute to explain it to everyone.

    A while after Katrina, which was a nightmare, I kept wondering why these project worksheets were never getting settled. We would send thousands of these worksheets to the Federal Government and say: This was our library. We estimate it will cost $5 million to rebuild it.

    The Federal Government would say: No, we think it is $2.5 million. That is all we owe you.

    So I said: I can understand there could be a disagreement. Who resolves it? No one. What do you mean, no one? No one. It just keeps going around and around, and we just keep sending paper back.

    I said: Is there any timeline for the resolution? No. I said: Is there any third-party arbitrator? No. So we put in a third-party arbitrator so that if a project is disagreed to by the locals about what was there, what it looked like, how they should rebuild it, we now have a rational way to step in and get a decision, and it is nonnegotiable. You can't appeal it. But it is better than not having a decision. The local governments really support this, and I am happy we could get that done.

    In addition--this was one of my favorites--everyone would run around giving press conferences about how we were going to build smarter and stronger and better, et cetera. Except when we looked into the law and actually read the law, it was illegal. If you tried to move a police station like 10 feet to get it out of the way of the river, or the land had sunk and you wanted to move it to higher ground, you would actually be penalized 25 percent because it became an alternate project since it wasn't exactly the same. So I said: We don't want to build the exact same thing. That was the problem to begin with. Some of our buildings were in places they shouldn't have been. Some of our buildings were built with materials we should never have used. So why are we having to rebuild the same old thing? Well, that was because that was what the law said. I said: Well, the law needs to be changed, and we are changing it.

    So I hope people, while they fuss at government--and I know we have a lot to do to get things straight--know a lot of thought has gone into some of these reforms, and they are based on real-life experiences on what communities have gone through. Hopefully, the Northeast will benefit from this as we go forward.

    Let me just put a few more things in the Record. No. 5 allows families to use FEMA individual assistance for childcare expenses.

    Here is another thing we found. We do depend on individual citizens to rebuild their communities. Trust me. The Federal Government may send a lot of money, but they didn't gut houses. Do you know who gutted houses? The churches helped, the volunteers helped, and seniors. Many veterans who had fought the war in the ``greatest generation,'' they, at 80 years old, put on gloves and overalls and gutted their own houses.

    I mean take your house down to the studs. It is a hard thing to do. Not only is it physically hard, it is emotionally devastating. The Federal Government did not come in and gut people's houses. We had to gut our houses by ourselves.

    After we sorted our debris by EPA requirements and dragged it out to the sidewalk and made sure it didn't touch a part of the lawn--because if it did, they couldn't pick it up because they can't go on private property to pick up debris. It is a nightmare. But this is going to be alleviated because parents and grandparents need to get back to gut their homes. They have to have a [[Page S38]] place for their kids to go that is safe. You can't have children running around in dangerous places. So people aren't thinking about this in a recovery, but schools have to be up and running, and you really should be able to use some of this money for daycare so the parents can work. Some of them quit their jobs to rebuild their homes. They lived off their savings and they went back to work. It is a tough situation.

    But I am happy, and I want to thank Mark Shriver, Save the Children, and the National Commission on Children and Disasters who led this initiative trying to help us focus on the storms of the future, what we could do better to help children to make sure their needs are cared for. We think about adults, but, of course, most of these families have kids, sometimes young children. So we have done a little bit. I wish we could have done more, but we negotiated the best we could, and at least we got the childcare provision in.

    It reduces bureaucratic waste by eliminating duplicative agency reviews for the same project and the same set of laws governing environmental, historic preservation, and benefit-cost requirements. It also helps the environment by incentivizing recycling of debris. So if we can find a way to recycle it, then people get paid a little bit more as opposed to just throwing it in the landfills. We think that will be a good opportunity to try to promote some good technologies for recycling. And--this is very important--it also corrects a gap in current law that prohibited tribal governments from requesting Federal assistance. They were completely prohibited under the former law. Really, as a matter of fair policy and the Federal law, tribes should be able to request some assistance as well, and that was corrected in this piece of legislation.

    It also, finally, eliminates a perverse incentive in the law to use high-priced contract labor for emergency work instead of local government employees, such as firefighters and police officers, which should save the Federal Government millions of dollars.

    In closing, I want to thank all of the different organizations that helped to pass this: the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the National League of Cities, the National Association of County Organizations, International Association of Emergency Managers, International Association of Firefighters, International Association of Fire Chiefs, and the Association of State Floodplain Managers.

    This is not a subject that is always fun to talk about because when you are talking about it, it is a lot of suffering that is going on, whether it is Joplin, MO, or Gulfport, MS, or New Orleans, LA, or New York, NY, or the boardwalk in New Jersey. And many of those not-so- small beach communities are very highly populated. There is a lot of suffering. But it is important for us to try, when we can, when we see that the response is not what it should be, to take the time to push out some reforms, to fix what we can fix so that the $60 billion that I hope we will send to them can be used smartly, quickly, and efficiently.

    I am living proof of a Senator who has had to literally help lead the rebuilding of the gulf coast, along with my friends from Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. My hometown is New Orleans. My brother is now the mayor, and he is rebuilding that city every day. Eighty percent of the residential communities on the east bank were destroyed completely. That would be like 80 percent of the District of Columbia but not Anacostia, but 80 percent--which would be the whole other side of DC on this side of the river--being uninhabitable. It is hard for people to get their head around that scale. I think Massachusetts has experienced some of these storms. But the scale and scope of the loss is just hard to get your head around. Even though it is not on the 5 o'clock news or the 6 o'clock news or 10 o'clock news or now 24-hour news, it is still happening. So this money and these reforms are important.

    So I hope the Senate will act quickly this week. We may have to take up a few amendments from the minority. We have already had the debate about offsets, and we have decided that in the middle of the battle we don't have to argue about who is going to pay for the bullets. We need to go ahead and send the money, and we will figure out how to pay for it later. We are going to pay for it. It is not a question of whether it is going to be repaid. It will be paid for. We should not be arguing about that while the water is rising or while people are gutting their homes or worshiping in tents along the beach. They need their churches back, they need their communities back, and we need to send them money and the smarter tools to help them with the recovery.

    So I again thank so many colleagues for helping with this, particularly Senator Lieberman and Senator Collins, who led a lot of these efforts through their leadership of the Homeland Security Committee and spent a significant amount of time along with their staff reviewing and helping to improve this legislation, as well as my colleagues on the Appropriations Committee on Homeland Security.


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