September 1, 2005

Congress prepares to pass emergency hurricane aid

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush on Thursday
asked Congress for $10.5 billion in emergency disaster relief
for the victims of Hurricane Katrina and the U.S. Senate and
House of Representatives were poised to approve the measure by

The funds will mostly help the Federal Emergency Management
Agency, which heads the disaster relief effort, help victims in
Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Some government experts
believe the money will be exhausted within about 20 days.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff estimated that
the federal government has spent "over a couple of billion"
dollars since Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans on Monday.

Congress, which has been on a month-long break, had been
due to return on Tuesday. But with the hurricane disaster
unfolding, the Senate has scheduled a rare early return from
recess and will vote late on Thursday on the emergency aid.

The U.S. House of Representatives is expected to vote on

The legislation is likely to sail through the House and
Senate with many lawmakers still in their home states.

According to House and Senate aides, FEMA would get $10
billion in emergency funds, and the Department of Defense would
receive $500 million for relief efforts.

Senate aides said there likely would be two more emergency
spending bills, once there is a better assessment of needs.
While they did not estimate the size of those measures, some
disaster relief experets say $20 billion to $30 billion could
be required.

Ron Bonjean, a spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert,
an Illinois Republican, said the special session was necessary
because FEMA "is going through the money much faster than
previously thought."

Government officials earlier this week said there was about
$2.4 billion in available federal disaster relief funds that
they thought could last up to a month.

But with problems mounting in New Orleans, where about 80
percent of the city is under water, relief efforts appeared
more complicated, and costly, than originally thought.

Congressional leaders discussed emergency funding
legislation with President George W. Bush and top aides,
including Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman, on Thursday.

The Gulf Coast rebuilding effort will be extensive,
according to congressional appropriators, with funds needed to
rebuild highways, government offices, military bases, water
systems, wildlife refuges and other facilities. Thousands of
homeless people need food, shelter and water, possibly over an
extended period.

(Additional reporting by Vicki Allen, Adam Entous and Caren