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Rep. Jim McDermott Headshot

Katrina Relief: A 100-Pound Sandbag

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The magnitude of destruction, distress, and dislocation in the Gulf Coast cries out for a national response that only the federal government can meet. Instead, we continue to see missteps, mismanagement and misinformation reminiscent of the Brownie Factor. Hurricane Katrina left hundreds of thousands low and wet, and the federal response is leaving tens of thousands high and dry. We have not provided adequate housing for the homeless, health coverage for the sick, protection for vulnerable children, or unemployment benefits for the jobless.

House Bill 3791, to provide assistance to individuals and States affected by Hurricane Katrina, poorly addresses the issues relating to unemployment and a wrecked economy. This bill is like throwing a 100-pound sandbag on a ruptured New Orleans levee. There's some relief, but it's altogether inadequate. While suggesting otherwise, this legislation provides almost no real relief to jobless disaster victims. Those who survived a natural disaster in the Gulf now face a man-made disaster in the House of Representatives. There are three major problems we're ignoring.

First, over 6,000 people have already exhausted unemployment benefits in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi. Another 20,000 jobless workers in these States are projected to run out of benefits by Christmas. These workers need a Federally-funded extension in their benefits while they put their lives back together and search for employment.

Second, Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana have the three lowest levels of average weekly unemployment benefits in the entire country. In all three States, the average benefit is less than $200 a week -- that's about half the poverty level for a family of four. Such small amounts are difficult to defend during any period of job loss. But these paltry payments are unconscionable when a person has lost not only their job, but also their home, their belongings, and the very fabric of their lives.

Third, disaster-affected States are seeing an enormous surge in unemployment claims. In Louisiana alone, new claims for unemployment benefits have surged ten times their normal levels, and State officials expect Katrina-related unemployment benefits to exceed $800 million. But the money is supposed to come from a state economy that has been devastated by the loss or dislocation of 70,000 businesses. Under Louisiana's law, once their unemployment trust fund slips below a certain level, automatic benefit cuts for jobless workers and tax increases for employers are triggered into effect.

That means people receiving unemployment benefits in Louisiana could see their benefits slashed by as much as $37 a week starting in January the way things stand now. This is just like Rita hitting after Katrina. Except that we control this second economic storm.

We owe the people of Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama a full measure of national compassion. Instead, in response to these enormous problems, the bill before us simply sends a lump sum of money that forces these hard hit states to bear another burden. What we're sending covers less than half of the cost of regular unemployment claims caused by the disaster. There's no money at all to extend expiring benefits, or to supplement the meager benefits currently available.
Does anyone really believe this is the best we can do?

Ask people in the shelters, people with no place to call home. Ask Americans on any street corner -- they'd be embarrassed all over again.

Perhaps part of the reason this legislation is limited in scope is the sudden demand by the Republican majority to cut spending regardless of the need or consequences.

Fiscal offsets didn't concern Republicans when they gave every millionaire a $100,000 tax break, or kept charging $215 billion for the Iraq War to future generations. But now that it comes time to meet the needs of vulnerable Americans, Republicans require that an American gets hurt for another American to get help.

President Bush promised that we would do whatever it takes. It takes more than the President's Party has offered tonight. People in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama are waiting for the President to make good on his promise. People across America are watching and hoping for the President to say something other than, "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job."

It wasn't so then and it's not so now in this legislation.

We can, should and must do better.