Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee on Rita's Impact

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Ed Gordon talks with Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) about how Hurricane Rita has affected her community in Texas' 18th district, which includes Houston.

ED GORDON, host:

Next we turn to the city of Houston, which earlier forecasted--forecasters were projecting, would bear the brunt of Rita. The city was spared a direct blow. However, the region is still hurting and trying to return to normal as thousands of evacuees return to the nation's fourth largest metropolis. Joining us now from Texas, Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, whose 18th District includes the city of Houston.

Congresswoman, thanks for joining us. Appreciate it.

Representative SHEILA JACKSON LEE (Democrat, Texas): Thank you for having me this morning. Good--and it's a pleasure to be with you.

GORDON: Let's talk a little bit about, first and foremost, what you saw the other day. We all watched the horrendous evacuation, horrendous by means of just sheer people on the highways of Houston. Were you satisfied with what you saw in terms of the ability to evacuate the city?

Rep. LEE: I was satisfied that there was a minimal loss of life and people did heed the call to evacuate. I think that the coordination certainly could have been better, and in this instance, as a member of the Homeland Security Committee, I, frankly, think that the state could have coordinated better with the federal government in that we would have had a more, I think, organized evacuation. As you well know, the nation watched as there was enormous backlog--traffic jam and frustration of the evacuees, meaning lack of fuel, disabled cars, long lines. I'm still hearing the stories of 14-hour drives, 25-hour drives, a 14-hour drive to go 72 miles. So I do think that we have learned a lesson in saving lives and evacuating ahead of a storm. But still, the federal government needed to have a larger presence, an organizational presence to assist the state, and the state should have made the request ahead of time.

GORDON: Congresswoman, let me ask you, those of us who know understand that we still have a ways to go in this hurricane season. While one can only hope and pray we won't see anything like Katrina again, we can assume that this area will be hit. As hurricanes continue to mount and dollars, quite frankly, continue to mount, how optimistic are you that this is going to be something that we are going to be able to grapple with financially?

Rep. LEE: Well, I think that as noted, one of the ...(unintelligible) industries that is in this area is the energy industry, and we need to hear a full assessment of whether or not production will start soon, how our refineries are doing. The other costs and so, obviously, the impact on continued production, we may have a cheaper gas price at the pump right now, but long term is going to be a question that has to be asked and answered. Many of those employees were evacuated.

The other aspect, of course, is all of the entertainment industry, restaurants and small businesses that have been closed--the hardship on those entities, whether there'll be a cost that we'll have to reimburse and whether and not business will reopen. So I don't think we have heard the--most of it. And I think the federal government, the president is going to make an assessment again on whether tax cuts are the right direction to go or whether or not a re-investment in this region--and many of us have been talking about a Marshall Plan for the Gulfport and Gulf Coast area.

GORDON: Congresswoman, I know that you participated, as did your colleagues, in the Congressional Black Caucus over last week and the weekend, the Congressional Black Caucus week. Talk to me a bit about--and we should note, we'll have some of your colleagues on in a couple of days to talk about the weekend in its totality. But talk to me about what came out of this in relation to a direction the CBC wants to take in dealing with Katrina.

Rep. LEE: Well, thank you. You know, I chaired it--co-chaired it this year with the Honorable Danny Davis of Illinois. In the midst of my co-chairing, of course, I left to come home to my district, but I give congratulations to my colleagues that carried on. We turned the whole legislative weekend into a tribute and a analysis of Hurricane Katrina. So many issues were glaringly under--not undertaken during the Hurricane Katrina, and so the focus for us was eradicating poverty. Since we believe that the enormous poverty in New Orleans and the region highlighted the disaster that occurred and the loss of life and the leaving behind of so many different people, our theme was dealing with reclamation and recovery and reunion. We want people to be able to return to that region particularly and African-Americans to be able to reclaim their land and reunite with their families and be able to financially recover. So our agenda over the next year, including closing the disparities gap in America, will be focused on eradicating poverty with a certain number of legislative initiatives.

And our Town Hall meeting, that included Dr. Ben Carson, Senator Barack Obama, Senator Hillary Clinton and a number of members of Congress...

GORDON: Yeah.

Rep. LEE: ...really, really highlighted the idea that we have ignored poverty in America and now it has caught up with us, highlighted by disasters where people with minimal means were left behind, large losses of life and not able...

GORDON: Yeah.

Rep. LEE: ...to rebuild their lives.

GORDON: Well...

Rep. LEE: I think that is going to be the question for America, really a civil rights question for America in this century.

GORDON: All right. We'll take a closer look, I should note, I believe on Wednesday with some of the issues that came out of the weekend. Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, thank you very much for joining us. We'll talk to you soon.

Rep. LEE: Thank you for having me.

GORDON: This is NPR News.

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