The U.S. Congress has overwhelmingly approved more emergency aid for the hurricane relief operations in the Gulf Coast and send the bill to the president for his signature. Congressional Democrats say the $51.8 billion package falls short of what is needed.
Senate Republican Leader Bill Frist underscored the importance of the aid package after he and other top congressional Republicans emerged from a White House meeting with President Bush to discuss federal relief and recovery operations in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. "It is a bill that is needed, that is necessary, that reflects our commitment, our discipline, our focus on this natural catastrophe, this natural disaster, which in all likelihood is the worst we have seen in the last 100 years," he said.
The aid package comes on top of $10.5 billion lawmakers approved last week. The White House has signaled it likely will ask for additional money in the coming weeks, as the cost of recovery and rebuilding is estimated to be as high as $200 billion.
Most of the new aid is to go to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, which many lawmakers, particularly Democrats, have criticized for being too slow to respond to the disaster.
Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid is among them. He says the aid package falls short of what is needed.
"After everything that has happened with FEMA, is there anyone, anyone who believes that we should continue to let the money go to FEMA and have it distributed by them? Second, the president's request fails to get families what they need now. His proposal won't assure that survivors get access to health care, housing or education."
Senate Democrats have introduced their own legislation that would provide hurricane victims with health insurance and housing assistance to those left homeless. It would also provide grants to school districts that take in students displaced by the storm.
In related action, local officials from hurricane-affected regions testified before the Senate Health, Education and Labor Committee about how the storm impacted their communities and how the federal government could help.
Diane Roussel, superintendent of schools in the Jefferson Parish district of New Orleans, offered emotional testimony. "We are not sure what is going to happen. The longer it takes us to rebuild, the more we lose. How many residents and students won't come back? How many teachers? We need financial help," he said.
Meanwhile, federal emergency officials briefed members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee about the recovery effort in closed session. The panel is to hold public hearings next week to examine the federal response to the hurricane.