Lawmakers Measure Katrina Progress

A Democratic congressional delegation is touring the Gulf Coast assessing the rebuilding process, nearly three years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the region. Two key members of the delegation, House Majority Whip James Clyburn of South Carolina and Congressman Charlie Melancon of Louisiana, share their perspectives on what's been accomplished and what the next steps should be.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

First, we go to the Gulf Coast. It may be hard to believe, but next month marks three years since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita crashed into the Gulf Coast. The storms and subsequent levy breaches displaced hundreds of thousands of people, decimated an entire region's infrastructure, and wracked up more than 80 billion dollars in damage.

As time passed, news of the rebuilding effort along the Gulf Coast has been pushed from the daily headlines, but the daily struggle to rebuild goes on. Over the weekend, a delegation of about 20 House Democrats began a four-day trip to take a look at how the efforts to rebuild some of the hardest-hit areas of Louisiana and Mississippi are coming along.

Two members of the delegation join me now from New Orleans, where the tour wraps up today. House Majority Whip and South Carolina Congressman James Clyburn and Louisiana Congressman Charlie Melancon. Welcome to you both. Thanks for joining us.

Representative JAMES CLYBURN (Democrat, South Carolina): Thank you so much for having us.

Representative CHARLIE MELANCON (Democrat, Louisiana): It's nice to be here.

MARTIN: Well, thank you. Congressman, let me start with you. This is the - sorry, Congressman Clyburn, this is the third year - because, of course, you are both congressmen, and I apologize for that. This is the third year you've led a delegation to monitor the Gulf Coast rebuilding effort. What did you notice this time around?

Rep. CLYBURN: Well, it's been a significant uptake in people's attitudes. I've seen many, many more smiles. I hear many, many more positive comments. Even people who are still suffering through the mistakes of this entire experience have been expressing real positive attitudes and hope for the future. And that's a real good thing.

When we first came down here three years ago, people thought that they had been deserted. They were very, very disappointed in the response of the Bush administration or the lack of response on the part of the Bush administration, and at that time, I was chair of the Democratic Congressmen. As you know, we were in the minority. And we said to the people here that if, per chance, the November elections yield a Democratic victory, and we were put in a majority, that we would seek a new direction here on the Gulf Coast.

And we set out to do that, and so we came back this weekend to assess the impact of the things that we have already done and to listen to people and get some feeling from them as to what they think we need to do and how to do it to go forward.

MARTIN: Congressman Melancon, let me bring you into the conversation. You represent Louisiana's third district. For those who don't know the area, that's about St Bernard's Parish, doesn't include New Orleans. You've got a lot of rural areas, and it's probably harder for you to gauge because you are so close to it. But three years in, what would you see - what do you see three years later - what's the difference three years later than when you first started monitoring rebuilding efforts?

Rep. MELANCON: Michel, we see progress, and those of us that are on the ground can quantify that progress. Those that have come on successive years with the congressional delegation, they see the progress. Those that have come for the first time are basically appalled that we are still in the position that we are in because, I guess, it is a comparative or relative comparison what we're looking at.

And while there is progress out there, there are many speed bumps and actual road blocks that confront our citizens every day. So moving forward has been an effort, but the resilience and the tenacity of the people that are trying to come home, whether it's from Atlanta or Houston or whether it's from Slidell or north of the lake somewhere, they want to get back to the homes and want to rebuild their lives. They hope to start their businesses back up or go back to the jobs. Some of them are still commuting in.

I think there is progress that is there. The enormity of the disasters of Katrina and Rita is very difficult to explain to people. But one of the high points is in the last year, in 07, there were - you know, people said, well, we're concerned that people will forget us. In 07, there were 550,000 volunteers that came to this region, and this is in the Louisiana sector of the storm. This doesn't count the Mississippi sector. This year, 08, the year to date from last August, there are counted 600,000 volunteers that have showed up.

We went in to a house the other day in Scharmett (ph), the Ansardy (ph) home, the rebuilding. They're trying to get back into their home, get back into their life. Mr. Ansardy lost his father in March. Very sad commentary had appeared on his Road Home grant. It had been denied earlier, died before he got the appeal approved. So those kind of sad stories are, we heard them this week, and that's part of why we were down here.

MARTIN: One of the people that your delegation met with was a criminal district court judge who said that the region really needs a new marshal plan modeled after the post World War Two rebuilding of Europe if the Gulf Coast is ever to fully recover. Congressman Clyburn, do you really think you can marshal the political will for something like that three years after a disaster like that?

Rep. CLYBURN: Oh yeah. We are not by no means walking away from this. I heard when I first here, got the term for (unintelligible) fatigue. I was sort of amused by that. We aren't tired of this at all. In fact, if anything, we are re-energized, and that's why we recently came down, so that you won't be looking at this from afar. You can come down. You can see what needs to be done. You can talk to people and internalize some of their frustrations and get back to Washington and get something done on their behalf.

And secondly, I believe that the votes are there to get something of that through the House of Representatives. I don't know if you can get it beyond a Senate (unintelligible) if we still have problems with getting the 60 votes (unintelligible) the bay in the Senate. And I'm not too sure of what the (unintelligible) in the White House are doing some of this.

For instance, just a simple thing of, say, giving these people time to pay back their share of some of the matching funds. The administration insists upon us, in this last package, holding it to three years. These people can't pay this back after three years. Why not 30 years like everybody else? It means that this administration does not get it. For some reason, they are still making it very, very difficult for people to do things. They are not taking the kick out there...

MARTIN: Well, wait a minute. Congressman, let me ask you about this. You raise an interesting point. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who is a Republican like the president, also agrees that the state should have more time to pay back its share of levy construction costs. He wants 30 years. You agree with that, but you haven't been able to get the votes for that. Why is that, and why aren't there any Republicans on this delegation, since one would think this is a bipartisan concern?

Rep. CLYBURN: Well, that's being (unintelligible). Three or four of them told us they were coming. We have them on the list, and then all of a sudden, they didn't show up. I would say, as I have said before, there are some people who are using the folks down here as political pawns. They are making it a political thing, which they should not do.

Now, this is my fourth time here. The first time I came down, it was a delegation headed by Speaker Hastert, and we made it bipartisan. I came on that trip and so did Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats because we believed we ought to be approaching this thing down here on a bipartisan basis. Since that time and we became the majority, and we invited Republicans, this is the third time, and they have refused to participate. So you'll have to ask the leadership of the Republican Party why they're intimating their folks to the...

MARTIN: Well, let me ask Congressman Melancon about this. I mean, the fact is both Louisiana and Mississippi have mixed delegations. Do you think that this issue has become identified with one party or the other and that's inhibiting efforts to make further progress?

Rep. MELANCON: Well, you know, I've always tried to stay away from the partisan of battles, but Mr. Clyburn's on the mark in respect to, we've opened the door and said please come and join us. This is a national issue. This is a about people in America. It's not about race. It's not about income. It's not about gender. It is about Americans that have been displaced because of two of the most catastrophic events in our history.

You know, touching back on the question of the match money, the White House basically said to the leadership and the Congress, particularly to the House, if you put anything more in this supplemental other than what I said you can do, then I will veto it. And we knew in the House and over in the Senate that the Republicans would stay basically in lock step for the most part, and we would not be able to override a veto. So we were not able to put the language to provide for the extension of repayment, but the President could do that by executive order any time of any day that he wanted to. So...

MARTIN: OK, just very briefly, Mr. Clyburn, we just have about a minute left. If you go back next year to the region on the tour for the fifth time. What do you hope to see that you haven't seen this year?

Rep. CLYBURN: Well, for me, I'll hope to see, number one, that we'll have extended the match time to 30 years. I would hope that we would've stopped them kicking these folks out of these trailers. They didn't ask (unintelligible). I think in February or March, we need to put the language in law to do something about that. I would hope that we will have stood back up the total healthcare system down here and the educational system.

We're now working on things that people don't see. You don't see what is or is not happening in the schools. You don't see a whole lot about what may or may not be going on with hospital care and that sort of thing. These are the kinds of things that you're going to have to do.

When we talk about infrastructure, people always think about roads and bridges and water and sewerage. When we talk about infrastructure in this Democratic caucus, we'll talk about healthcare. We'll talk about education. We'll talk about getting these things back online, so people can come back home to good educational systems and get hospital and health care.

MARTIN: Congressman Melancon, you know, congressmen aren't immune from the effects of the storm. So very briefly, how are you doing?

Rep. MELANCON: I'm doing quite fine. We're very fortunate. I lived in between the two storms. if you would, sort of in south central Louisiana, where one storm came into the eastern sector. The other storm came into the western sector. But I've been impacted by the insurance rate increases without any damage of - I lost one shingle between the two storms, so that tells you that's where I live. But, in fact, everyone below I-10 in South Louisiana...

MARTIN: OK

Rep. MELANCON: Is affected by the increasing cost of everything. I mean, gasoline's one of them. Food's the other one.

MARTIN: Sure.

Rep. MELANCON: Insurance down here is becoming a major...

MARTIN: All right.

Rep. MELANCON: Detriment to redevelopment and rebuilding.

MARTIN: All right, we're going to have to leave it there. Thank you so much. Congressman Charlie Melancon of Louisiana's third district joined us from New Orleans along with House Majority Whip James Clyburn, who represents South Carolina's sixth district. I thank you both so much. They joined us from New Orleans, where they've been touring the Gulf.

Rep. MELANCON: Thank you.

Rep. CLYBURN: Thank you very much for having us.

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