On Sunday, President Obama signed a long-awaited bill to provide emergency federal aid to Hurricane Sandy victims in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
Federal funds will flow more than two months after Sandy killed 120 people, caused more than $80 billion in damage and displaced nearly a million people from their homes.
The biggest question victims had was, "What the heck took so long?" Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid erroneously told the Senate on Friday that Hurricane Sandy was more devastating than Hurricane Katrina, claiming that Katrina was "nothing in comparison to what happened to the people in New York and New Jersey" from Sandy. The people of Connecticut, apparently, suffered no harm from Sandy.
Not only was Reid wrong about the two storms' devastation, he unwittingly minimized Katrina's death and destruction, thus offending Katrina victims. While Sandy impacted three heavily-populated areas, it didn't come anywhere close to Katrina's level of carnage. Hurricane Katrina killed 1,833 people and caused more than $145 billion in damage. In comparison, Hurricane Sandy killed 120 people and caused $80 billion in damage.
On Friday, the Senate Majority Leader lashed out at Congress, arguing that they were able to pass the first $60 billion aid package for Hurricane Katrina just 10 days after the storm hit New Orleans and flooded 80 percent of the city. Reid chastised his fellow public servants for taking more than two months to approve a $9.7 billion package, far less than the $60 billion Sandy relief bill approved by the Senate and the $83 billion requested by the governors of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
In a rambling, inarticulate statement in which he contradicted himself and ignored victims in Connecticut, Reid said,
"I really do believe it is important that I have the record reflect the reason we have gotten as far as we have on Sandy is because of the senior Senator from New York. It is too bad that it has taken so long. When we had that devastation from Katrina, we were there within days taking care of Mississippi, Alabama and especially Louisiana -- within days. We are now past two months with the people of New York and New Jersey."
"The people of New Orleans and that area, they were hurt but nothing in comparison to what happened to the people in New York and New Jersey. Almost 1 million people have lost their homes; 1 million people lost their homes. That is homes, that is not people in those homes. So I think it is just unfortunate that we do not have the relief for New York and New Jersey and the rest already. It has to be done. We have to meet the needs of the American people when an act of God occurs."
House Republicans argued that the extra time was necessary to correct mistakes learned in funding Katrina; namely, to remove pork added by Democrats in the Senate, to make sure the emergency spending bill addressed only the Sandy emergency and to assure the funds were spent wisely.
"We need to get the pork out," said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-CA, in reference to additional funding added to the House bill by Senate Democrats. "None of that pork we're talking about is in New York, New Jersey or Connecticut. In fact, it's as far away as Alaska... [I want a] clean bill that only deals with the men and women and families on the eastern seaboard that need to be taken care of."
Rampant waste, fraud and misuse of hastily-issued Katrina funds led Republican members of Congress to take a more careful, targeted approach with Sandy, to minimize the backlash experienced during Katrina. According to the Government Accountability Office, immediately after Katrina hit, a billion dollars of emergency aid—16 percent of the total—was wasted on to fraudulent claims. Even legitimately obtained pre-paid debit cards given to aid Katrina's victims were used to buy non-essentials like champagne, tattoos and porn, much to Congress's embarrassment.
Other items originally in the Sandy emergency bill that concerned Republicans and fiscal watchdog Taxpayers for Common Sense included:
- $821 million to dredge and maintain shipping channels;
- $223 million for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for operations, research and facilities;
- $150 million for expenses related to fishery disasters declared in Arkansas, Mississippi, Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut and New York;
- $44.5 million to repair and upgrade NOAA hurricane reconnaissance aircraft;
- $8.5 million for improvements to NOAA weather forecasting equipment and supercomputer infrastructure, and
- authorization for FEMA to reopen its loan cancellation review process and broaden its ability to cancel loans for communities affected by Hurricane Katrina and other 2005 hurricanes.
The bill Congress finally passed was a much-scaled-down, $9.7 billion package to fund the federal flood insurance account, which specifically goes to help Hurricane Sandy victims. The bill passed the House 354-67 on Friday and passed the Senate by voice vote. President Barack Obama signed it into law on Sunday.
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