Senate passes $3.5 billion plan for victims

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Families would get vouchers averaging $600 a month for up to six months.

WASHINGTON -- More than 350,000 families made homeless by Hurricane Katrina would get emergency housing vouchers averaging $600 a month for up to six months under a measure approved Wednesday by the Senate.

Any displaced family regardless of income would be eligible for the program, expected to cost $3.5 billion over six months.

The action came as Senate Democrats scolded the nation's security chief for failing to take advantage of a national emergency response plan to send massive federal aid to the Gulf Coast before Hurricane Katrina hit.

Democrats said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff delayed declaring Katrina an "incident of national significance" -- a designation that would have triggered a quick and massive federal response -- until a day after the hurricane hit, even though weather forecasts predicted the storm would cause widespread destruction.

A Chertoff spokesman denied the charge, pointing to millions of readymade meals, thousands of blankets and dozens of federal rescue teams sent to the region as the hurricane approached.

The housing measure, by Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Md., was attached on a voice vote to an unrelated spending bill covering the Commerce and Housing and Urban Development departments. The Senate was to pass the overall bill Thursday; a final version needs to be worked out with the House, which approved a similar spending bill for the two departments in June.

"Any person or family displaced as a result of Hurricane Katrina ... could get a temporary housing voucher. This is without regard to their income situation," Sarbanes said. "It recognizes the storm hit rich and poor alike, and this is an effort to give them some immediate, short-term help so they can move out of the situation in which they find themselves."

The Bush administration also acted on Wednesday to begin covering medical costs for low-income refugees from the worst natural disaster in U.S. history.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services planne to announce on Thursday that it will pick up all costs of Medicaid care for an low-income evacuees who fled to Texas. The state's senior senator, Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison, received a phone call late Wednesday from CMS Administrator Mark McClellan about the forthcoming aid, said her spokesman, Chris Paulitz.

An estimated 250,000 refugees from the flooding, an overwhelming majority of them believed to be qualified for Medicaid, are now in Texas. For five months state matching funds that are part of the Medicaid program will be waived, said Paulitz.

He quoted McClellan as saying the administration is looking at the Texas waivers as a possible model for other states.

On Thursday, the Senate planned to debate a plan expected to cost between $5 billion and $7 billion to speed health care for people displaced by Katrina. The measure would ease rules for the Medicaid federal health care program. Also Thursday, Congress hoped to work through a bill that would waive penalties for hurricane victims who tap their 401(k) retirement savings accounts and would allow a tax deduction to anyone who houses evacuees for two months or more.

The Senate on Wednesday rejected a Democratic proposal to establish an independent, bipartisan commission -- similar to one enacted after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 -- to examine what went wrong in Katrina's wake.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., said Chertoff's department "should have acted faster, based on the rules and regulations that they're committed to."

He was referring to the National Response Plan, issued by the department in January, which allows federal aid before a disaster strikes. The plan states that a federal response "can be partially or fully implemented in the context of a threat, anticipation of a significant event, or the response to a significant event."

The plan generally requires the federal government to react to emergencies that exceed state and local capabilities. Disasters defined as an incident of national significance demand the greatest federal response, according to the plan.

Chertoff declared Katrina as a nationally significant incident in an Aug. 30 memo -- a day after the storm hit -- to Cabinet members.

Democrats questioned why Chertoff's memo came three days after President Bush's Aug. 27 declaration of a state of emergency in Louisiana, in advance of the storm. The next day, Aug. 28, Bush issued federal emergency declarations for Mississippi and Alabama.

Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke said the presidential declarations immediately triggered the deployment of millions of meals, water and ice that began arriving in six Gulf Coast states the day before the storm hit. Cots, blankets and teams of federal rescue personnel also were sent to mobilizing centers just outside Katrina's immediate path, he said.

Several days' worth of food and water were also dispatched to the New Orleans Superdome as the storm hit on Aug. 29, Knocke said.

Chertoff's memo was only a formal announcement of the disaster declaration, he said.

"We were already operating under the National Response Plan," Knocke said.

Also Wednesday, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee asked Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to review the legal framework governing a president's power to use active duty troops to restore public order in emergencies such as Katrina.

"The inquiry should not be limited to natural disasters, but should also include large-scale public health emergencies, terrorist incidents, and any other situations which could result in serious breakdowns in public order," wrote Sen. John Warner, R-Va.

Associated Press writer Andrew Taylor contributed to this report.

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