Lawmakers in Congress are taking a look at the impact of U.S. assistance to victims of the South Asia tsunami. Three hearings in the House of Representatives Wednesday were devoted to tsunami issues.
Members of Congress want to know how efficiently U.S. assistance is being distributed to those in need, and what the remaining obstacles are to recovery in tsunami-stricken areas.
Following up on a public pledge by President Bush, Congress is likely to approve at least $350 million for tsunami aid.
Many lawmakers believe that is insufficient, given United Nations and other estimates of amounts required to address the situations in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, and other countries bordering the Indian Ocean.
The U.S. Agency for International Development has a multi-stage plan including emergency assistance, reconstruction, rehabilitation and longer-term needs.
Appearing before two House committees, USAID administrator Andrew Natsios says money is going to build shelters, provide small business loans and cash-for-work jobs, clean water, and to restore the fishing industry and markets in devastated areas:
"We need the markets functioning to get the society moving again,” said Mr. Natsios. “We also need to move people to do something constructive for themselves. Many of them are dwelling on what has happened to them and they're going literally into shock, emotional trauma because their entire families have died, their villages have been destroyed, their jobs have been destroyed, their livelihoods, their religious institutions, nothing is left, and they literally will become severely depressed unless measures are taken to."
Undersecretary of State for Economic Affairs, Alan Larson, says a preliminary estimate of economic losses in Indonesia is $4.5 billion.
He says the United States is working with the private sector and foreign governments, but predicts more U.S. assistance will be needed:
"The President's early and initial commitment of $350 million was instrumental in helping us move quickly,” he said. “As more comprehensive analyses of needs for reconstruction become available, I expect there will be a need for additional U.S. funding."
Appearing at a third hearing, experts and officials on weather, geology and emergency management advocated more attention to steps that could prepare the United States for a possible tsunami.
Congressman Sherwood Boehlert is chairman of the House Science Committee.
"The devastating events of December 26 are a wakeup call to all of this that we need to do more to prepare for tsunami," he said.
Congressman David Wu is from the state of Oregon, which has a coastal zone vulnerable to tsunamis.
"While we deal with the current situation in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand and elsewhere at the same time we should be very cognizant of the possibility of significant tsunamis occurring in the United States,” he noted. “We are in the yellow zone, if not the red zone, for another significant event in the Pacific Northwest."
Arthur Lerner-Lam of Columbia University's Center for Hazards and Risks Research, says risks to the United States may appear minimal, but should not be under-estimated.
"There are areas in the world that have persistent hydro-meteorological and geophysical impacts from disasters, and the United States on a global basis luckily suffers relatively low mortality,” he explained. “But in terms of economic risks the United States has a severe exposure, and again these exposures to a basket of hazards are significant."
Shortly after the December Indian Ocean tsunami, President Bush directed U.S. government agencies to reassess alert systems covering the United States.
Lawmakers want more money to be devoted to tsunami early warning systems, and more for related earthquake research, in addition to U.S. help in establishing tsunami warning systems in the Indian Ocean.