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Congress Approves First Major Hurricane Relief Aid Amid New Criticisms

Congress Friday approved and sent to President Bush a $10.5 billion relief assistance package for victims of hurricane Katrina, in the southern United States. Government relief efforts came under renewed sharp criticism from African-American lawmakers who say the response to the crisis in New Orleans, Louisiana has been inadequate.

Approval by the House of Representatives came amid scenes of continuing chaos in New Orleans, Louisiana, the most visible symbol of the destruction of Hurricane Katrina, and what President Bush described as unacceptable relief efforts.

The Senate approved the emergency legislation earlier, as both chambers were called into scaled-down emergency sessions ahead of their formal reconvening next week.

Most of the money goes to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which is overseeing efforts to evacuate people from New Orleans, and assist other storm victims.

That agency came under new criticism, with questions being asked about why security was allowed to deteriorate in the city, and why many evacuees had to endure unsanitary conditions with little food or water.

African-American lawmakers in the House of Representatives used a news conference to allege that Washington failed African-Americans who make up some 70 percent of the population of New Orleans.

"Many of these Americans who are now struggling to survive are Americans of color," said Elijah Cummings, former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. "Their cries for assistance confront America with a test of our moral compass as a nation. We cannot allow it to be said by history that the difference between those who lived and those who died in this great storm and flood of 2005 was nothing more than poverty, age or skin color."

House Democratic minority leader Nancy Pelosi said Friday that all Americans regardless of their economic status should be able to expect a better response.

"If people are left behind, because of their economic status, then that is something, that is wrong and that is not something that this $10 billion should support," she said. "We must, if this is not enough, do more."

Congressman Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, said Americans must come together and lawmakers should avoid partisan politics in helping victims of the hurricane.

"We need to look at what has happened to states whose revenue base has been decimated," he said. "We need to look at what is happening to our economy. We need to do our job. We need to do it in a manner that is not partisan. And we need to move forward to take this first step today."

President Bush, touring hurricane areas Friday, said he believes relief operations will improve.

"People around here are going to be amazed at the compassion that pours into this community," he said. "First things first, we have to make them safe."

Republicans were still dealing with the effects of a remark earlier in the week by Republican Speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert.

He said he thought it made no sense to rebuild New Orleans, but later clarified that he was not suggesting the city be abandoned or relocated.

Congressman Jim McCrery, from the state of Louisiana, had this reaction.

"Clearly, there is lots of information that we need to gather as we begin to rebuild New Orleans, rebuild the levee system and so forth," he said. "But I don't think anybody doubts that New Orleans will be rebuilt."

Although lawmakers from both parties have called for a unified non-partisan approach to the challenges posed by the post-hurricane crisis, politics has already begun to inject itself into events.

Democrats are seeking to contrast the billions of dollars being spent by the United States on reconstruction in Iraq, with the slowness of the government response to the situation in New Orleans and other areas of the Gulf Coast.