Congresswoman Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara, joined a delegation of a dozen other Democratic members of Congress in visiting the Gulf Coast to mark the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. What she saw there, she says, galvanized her and her colleagues’ determination to right the wrongs within the government’s emergency response system that surfaced in the aftermath of the disaster.
How has the situation in New Orleans changed in the last six months?
There has been some progress, that’s the good news. We’ve seen some rebuilding occur. We saw some signs of hope. We saw people beginning to come back. But it’s miniscule, and it can be summarized in the amount of money that’s been appropriated. We’ve appropriated over 110 billion of federal tax dollars to the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast region, but a fraction of that, maybe 15-20 percent, has actually gone into the hands of the people who can do something with it. That’s the double-tragedy: The natural disaster was one thing, but a lot of people talked about the manmade disaster that followed. We were determined, those of us who visited, to make good on the promise the federal government has made and that our president has made.
What steps are you taking to make good on that promise?
There’s something in the FEMA regulations called the Stafford Act. It was introduced in the Roosevelt era to provide emergency opportunities to waive certain requirements that would take a matter of time under the normal process. Every group we talked to, whether it was physicians in hospitals or schools or businesses, they all said, “Provide waivers for the Stafford Act, or modernize the Stafford Act, but don’t take time to do it, you’ve got to get in there and fix it quickly so that the regulations can be brought up to speed.” Here’s an example: the Army Corps of Engineers can rebuild the levee to the strength it was before. But there wasn’t the new permission given to go to a greater strength or a higher level. They would buy a generator for someone who lost a generator, or someone who lost their refrigeration, but only to the level of the item that was destroyed. If it was a 12-year-old air conditioner, then they’d only replace it with a 12-year-old machine, which sounds stupid to me. That’s where I think the buck stops at us. We have to be the ones to rewrite whatever it is that needs to be done so we can get help more quickly to them.
Will these changes be able to be made?
That’s the big question. The people on the ground there feel betrayed by leadership that has sat on its hands, that has not been willing to get off the dime and move and do the things that are required to free up the money that has been appropriated. So many of them said, “We fill out the forms, we do this and that, and they send it back and they say, ‘You didn’t do this part right, you didn’t do that, you have to go and do this.’ ” It’s a bunch of hoops they have to go through. They feel like they’re being punished by the bureaucracy.
What lessons can you take from New Orleans and apply to this area?
It’s the old Boy Scout motto: “Be prepared.” We have to have things in place ahead of time, so that when there is a disaster — because it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when — we have the resources more at hand to deal with it right away, not in the days and weeks, literally, that went by after Katrina hit. It means building community support. The federal government has to be at the table, but certainly not the major piece. It’s the community that does it. The federal government can provide the wherewithal to get people organized, from the private sector, the Red Cross with their local chapters, the local government groups, to come together and say, “These are the risks we have in our area. What do we need to do ahead of time? How can we get involved in doing this?” We need to pass this kind of legislation so that community groups can begin.