WASHINGTON – Congress rushed to provide a $10.5 billion down payment in relief aid for Gulf Coast victims of Hurricane Katrina on Thursday as President Bush ordered new action to minimize disruptions in the nation’s energy supplies. The Senate approved the measure Thursday night, and the House will convene at noon today to speed the measure to Bush’s desk.
“Don’t buy gas if you don’t need it,” the president urged consumers already hit by sharply rising prices.
Amid lawlessness in flooded, chaotic New Orleans, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced plans to deploy 1,400 additional National Guard personnel each day for the next several days.
“Frankly, what we’re doing is we are putting probably more than we need in order to send an unambiguous message that we will not tolerate lawlessness or violence or interference with the evacuation,” he said.
A skeleton crew of Senate leaders was all that was required to speed the measure through by voice vote after Bush informed top Republicans and Democrats that reserves of relief funds could be exhausted by Congress’ scheduled return from a five-week vacation on Tuesday.
Despite fresh pledges of help from Bush and other officials, there were stirrings of discontent from officials over the administration’s response to the storm.
Katrina roared ashore on Monday, claiming lives and spreading destruction along the Gulf Coast. Breaks in New Orleans’ levees left the city defenseless against disastrous flooding.
“This is a national emergency. This is a national disgrace,” said Terry Ebbert, the head of emergency operations for New Orleans. He said it had taken too long to evacuate the Superdome, a sports complex that quickly became a squalid shelter for tens of thousands of storm refugees.
“FEMA has been here three days, yet there is no command and control,” he said, referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “We can send massive amounts of aid to tsunami victims, but we can’t bail out the city of New Orleans.”
Bush, who intends to visit the devastated area today, expressed sympathy for the victims. “I know this is an agonizing time. … I ask their continued patience as recovery operations unfold,” he said.
He announced he was asking his two immediate predecessors to head an appeal for public donations to help hurricane victims. The two men, his father, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton, performed a similar role in the wake of the tsunami that struck nations along the Indian Ocean last year.
Congressional officials said $10 billion in relief aid would go to FEMA, the government’s first-line defender in case of natural disasters. The remainder is ticketed for the Pentagon, which has dispatched ships and other assistance to aid in the relief effort.
In a letter to Capitol Hill that accompanied the request, Bush said the situation “requires immediate action by the Congress to ensure that the federal response to this disaster uninterrupted.” And he put lawmakers on notice that the $10 billion was only a first installment, with another request expected after a fuller assessment of the storm’s impact.
With Congress officially on vacation, top leaders passed the relief measure without waiting for lawmakers to return to the Capitol.
“America stood with New York in its time of need and we will stand with the people of the Gulf states now that they need us,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.
Bush, too, referred to the destruction wrought in New York by the terror attacks of four years ago. “New Orleans is more devastated than New York was and just physically devastated, as is the coast of Mississippi,” he said in an interview with ABC.
Separately, Ben Bernanke, chairman of Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers, said some estimates of insured damage have been on the order of $25 billion.
Republican Sen. Thad Cochran, whose home state of Mississippi was hard-hit by the hurricane, said the $10 billion would be the first of at least three bills to help with relief and recovery.
“Over half a billion dollars a day is being spent by FEMA,” said Cochran, who is chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
While Republican leaders jointly announced plans to rush the spending bill to the president for his signature, Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., expressed some misgivings over a longer-term rebuilding effort in a newspaper interview published during the day in his home state.
Asked in an interview with the Daily Herald, a suburban Chicago paper, whether it made sense to spend billions rebuilding a city that lies below sea level, he replied, “I don’t know. That doesn’t make sense to me.”
Hastert sought to clarify his comments, issuing a statement that said, “It is important that when we rebuild this historic city that we consider the safety of the citizens first.”
“I am not advocating that the city be abandoned or relocated,” he said. “My comments about rebuilding the city were intended to reflect my sincere concern with how the city is rebuilt to ensure the future protection of its citizens.”
Bush, meanwhile, kept to a schedule peppered with meetings designed to project the image of a leader responding to a challenge.
In addition to his ABC interview, the president conferred by telephone with congressional leaders and had lunch with Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan for what aides said was a discussion of the hurricane’s potential impact on the economy and the energy supply.
Talking to reporters, Bush said the administration was working to restore pipeline capacity to the Gulf Coast, and said he expects a “temporary disruption of gasoline.”
“Steps we’re taking will help address the problem of availability (of gasoline), but it’s not going to solve it,” he said. “Americans should be prudent in their use of energy over the course of the next few weeks. Don’t buy gas if you don’t need it.”
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