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Democrat calls on Congressional Research Service to review the law around disaster response

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Congressman John Conyers, Jr., Ranking Member of the House Judiciary Committee sent the following letter today to the Congressional Research Service to review the law and legal requests pertaining to Hurricane Katrina, and acquired by RAW STORY.

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I write to request that CRS review the applicable law and legal requests pertaining to Hurricane Katrina, and confirm whether or not the necessary steps were taken to give the Federal government in general, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in particular, the legal authority needed to act to save lives and mitigate the damage stemming from Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana.

Given that the Administration has described the Hurricane as the largest natural disaster in our nation's history, it is inconceivable to me that they would permit a bureaucratic issue to interfere with the performance of its job. However, it appears to me that the State of Louisiana took all necessary and appropriate actions to permit federal engagement. Some in the White House and Congress appear to want to derail any inquiry of this matter by labeling attempts to assess accountability as a "blame game." In my view, such labeling is not only misguided, but has potentially deadly implications, as it is essential to determine what went wrong and who is responsible so that we can correct shortcomings and avoid a similar debacle in the future.

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An immediate review of the legal authority is necessary due to the continuing confusion in the media and the public concerning whether or not FEMA's actually had the necessary authority to respond under the law. For example, Monday's New York Times reports that "the administration is ... working to shift the blame away from the White House and toward officials in New Orleans and Louisiana, who, as it happens are Democrats."1 I also understand that White House officials provided information to the Washington Post claiming that "[A]s of Saturday, Blanco still had not declared a state of emergency,"2 and to Newsweek, asserting that "Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco seemed uncertain and sluggish, hesitant to declare martial law or a state of emergency, which would have opened the door to more Pentagon help."3

My own review of the facts and law indicates the following:

  • The Stafford Act, the relevant statute concerning natural disaster relief, provides that "[a]ll requests for a declaration by the President that a major disaster exists shall be made by the Governor of the affected State."4 The Act goes on to specify that such a request is "a prerequisite to major [federal] disaster assistance" and details various information which is to be included in such a request.5

  • On Saturday, August 27 and Sunday, August 28, Gov. Kathleen Blanco wrote to President Bush requesting that the president "declare an emergency for the State of Louisiana due to Hurricane Katrina." The letters reference the Stafford Act and itemize the severity and magnitude of Hurricane Katrina and specifically requests federal assistance.6

  • On Saturday, August 27, President Bush issued a Statement on Federal Emergency Assistance for Louisiana. He "declared an emergency exists in the State of Louisiana" and by its terms "authorizes the Department of Homeland Security, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), to coordinate all disaster relief efforts which have the purpose of alleviating the hardship and suffering caused by the emergency to the local population." The White House statement also references the provisions of the Stafford Act.7

*The DHS website provides that "in the event of a terrorist attack, natural disaster, or other large scale emergency, the Department of Homeland Security will assume primary responsibility on March 1st for ensuring that emergency response professionals are prepared for any situation. This will entail providing a coordinated, comprehensive federal response to any large-scale crisis and mounting a swift and effective recovery effort."8

For your convenience, I have attached copies of all of the above materials to this letter.

In my judgment, it would appear to be relatively straightforward that the Governor's letter, combined with the declaration by President Bush granted DHS and FEMA full and complete authority to respond to Hurricane Katrina and to provide necessary aid and assistance to Louisiana and the other affected States. However, it would be extremely helpful if you could confirm to me whether or not I am reading the law correctly.

Given the importance and urgency of this issue, I would ask that you please provide us with a detailed analysis no later than Monday, September 12, 2005. Please feel free to contact Perry Apelbaum or Ted Kalo of the Judiciary Committee staff, at 2142 Rayburn House Office Building, Washington, DC 20515 (tel. 202-225-6504, fax 202-225-4423), with any questions or requests for any additional information.

Thank you for your prompt attention to this issue.

Sincerely,

John Conyers, Jr.

Originally published on Wednesday September 7, 2005.

 


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