WASHINGTON - Members of Congress yesterday began scrutinizing the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, including worry that no one is making sure that billions of dollars approved for relief are not wasted, concern that repairs to New Orleans' levees won't be effective, and fear that the "blame game" will impede progress.
Hearings sprouted like onion grass across Capitol Hill as lawmakers rushed to go on record voicing their opinions about the response to one of the biggest natural disasters ever to hit the United States.
After quickly voting to spend $62 billion for Katrina relief efforts, Congress is worried that no one person is in charge of minimizing fraud and abuse.
Although inspectors general are supposed to do that at every federal agency, the money is pouring through at such a fast pace and with so few safeguards that many members of Congress said they are bracing for a deluge of corruption.
Democrats yesterday complained about the Bush administration granting no-bid contracts for debris removal and a decision to raise spending on government credit cards used for Katrina-related activities from $2,500 to $250,000.
Several lawmakers also questioned a $236 million federal expenditure to contract for cruise ships for temporary housing, though most evacuees refused to go on board.
"I just think we're throwing a lot of money out there," complained Rep. Bart Stupak (D., Mich.). "We need someone in charge and accountable."
There is a bipartisan bill, sponsored by Sen. Barack Obama (D., Ill.) and Tom Coburn (R., Okla.), to have one person keep track of all Katrina spending. The White House has not ruled out appointing someone to take charge of the rebuilding effort and keep an eye on spending, but spokesman Scott McClellan said the primary duty now is to take care of people who lost their homes.
"Washington tends to get caught up in bickering and finger-pointing," he said. "The President is focused on problem-solving."
In the Senate Finance Committee, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, a Democrat, refused to respond to harsh criticism by former federal disaster response official Michael Brown at a hearing earlier this week. She said it was more important for her to tell Congress that 41 percent of her state's businesses are displaced or shuttered because of Katrina and Rita.
She and Republican governors Haley Barbour of Mississippi and Bob Riley of Alabama, both of whom appeared by video conference, begged Congress for tax incentives such as accelerated depreciation for businesses and other tax write-offs. Ms. Blanco proposed $30 billion in tax-exempt hurricane recovery bonds and a $10 billion Louisiana business development fund to provide grants to small businesses that return.
Although Louisiana officials said they will need $250 billion in federal financial assistance to recover, Mr. Barbour said that figure is excessive. He did not give a dollar estimate of what his state will need.
Mr. Riley said the federal government should step into the debate over whether insurance policies should cover hurricane damage from water as well as wind. So far, many insurers say that unless homeowners had federal flood insurance, which most did not, their policies do not cover the damage.
Army Corps of Engineers officials testified before a House subcommittee that it will cost $1.6 billion to restore New Orleans' levees to the level where they were before Hurricane Katrina, in addition to $464 million already spent to begin repairs.
After Rita hit, water again rushed into New Orleans through a breached levee.
Lt. Gen. Carl Strock, commander and chief engineer, said that to upgrade the levees to withstand a Category 5 hurricane would take 24 months for a study, another five years of work, and cost $3.5 billion.
He said the levees were built for a Category 3 storm only because the National Weather Service said there was only a .5 percent chance a more intense hurricane would strike in any one year. And then came Katrina, a Category 5 storm that was downgraded to a Category 4 just before it made landfall.
Asked by lawmakers if it is worth it to rebuild houses and businesses as long as New Orleans may flood again, General Strock said the same questions were asked about San Francisco, which is certain to have another catastrophic earthquake.
"People live where they live," he said.
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