WASHINGTON – The government has not done enough to help large swaths of the Gulf Coast recover and rebuild after Hurricane Katrina, a key Republican senator said in a push for Congress to retain its focus on delivering aid in the new year.
Though lawmakers have approved $67 billion for Gulf Coast emergency relief and long-term recovery programs, and President Bush has called for an additional $1.5 billion to strengthen New Orleans levees, hard-hit areas in Mississippi and Louisiana need more federal resources and attention, said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.
"I don't think the government has done enough," said Collins, who is leading a delegation of senators on Tuesday to Gulfport, Miss., and St. Bernard Parish in Louisiana -- two areas that she said have been overlooked compared to New Orleans. Both areas were nearly obliterated by high wind during the Aug. 29 storm.
The lawmakers also will tour parts of New Orleans, including inspecting progress on rebuilding levees that are crucial to encouraging residents and businesses back to the previously flooded city.
"This is a long-term commitment," Collins said in an interview Saturday. "The devastation is so widespread that a sustained federal commitment is going to be necessary. I think Congress realizes that, but there's also a growing concern about whether the money is well spent."
Democrats, too, are watching how Congress will pay for what they called continued necessary assistance to the Gulf Coast amid a rising deficit and other high-cost expenses, including the war in Iraq.
"This is really a catastrophe of enormous proportions, and I don't think we appropriated nearly enough to help," said Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., after reviewing damage Friday in the New Orleans area. She is calling for Congress to repeal Bush's tax cuts to help pay for Katrina-related rebuilding.
Last month, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, chastised Congress for failing to approve emergency funding, thus stalling state transportation, school and housing projects.
The state last week released a report calling for bold moves to improve its transportation and housing systems to a better level than before Katrina hit.
In prepared testimony for a Senate hearing in Gulfport on Tuesday, the Bush administration's Gulf Coast rebuilding czar outlined two top priorities for Mississippi: debris removal and temporary housing for evacuees.
So far, Mississippi has cleaned up 27 million cubic yards of debris -- about two-thirds of the total, said Donald Powell, the federal Gulf Coast coordinator. He estimated that Hancock, Harrison and Jackson counties in Mississippi were left with more debris after Katrina than totals after Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and the World Trade Center from the 2001 terror attacks combined.
Powell also estimated that fewer than 2,000 evacuated families remain in Mississippi hotels, and that 280,000 state residents have received transitional housing assistance.
"Every time some type of natural disaster has hit, the people of this region have come back, and come back stronger than before," Powell said in his prepared remarks, obtained by The Associated Press. "Failure is not an option. ... It's too important a task not to do it right."
Collins, chair of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, which is holding the hearing, said she planned to examine whether Powell has enough authority in his post to order changes for progress.
Powell, the former chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and a wealthy Bush campaign contributor, serves as a liaison between state and local authorities in the region who are developing rebuilding plans, and Congress and Bush administration officials who will help fund them.
"He cannot direct what needs to be done," Collins said, adding that Powell has been working with a bare-bones staff. "He's very much a straight-shooter, and is hard working, but I wonder if he has the troops that he needs."
Collins also said senators would examine rebuilding progress on New Orleans levees -- and the ongoing controversy over whether Congress should approve funds to make them strong enough to withstand a Category 5 hurricane, as local residents and business leaders have demanded.
Some weather experts believe Katrina, a Category 4 hurricane when it hit the coast, had weakened to a Category 3 or 2 storm by the time it reached New Orleans. Bush and Powell have called for rebuilding the floodwalls to withstand a Category 3 storm.
"I clearly want the levees to be stronger, taller and tougher than they were before, but there's not a common definition what it means to build to a Category 5," Collins said.