Pols Split on Probe of Response to Storm

Hurricane Katrina

By E.J. Kessler

Published September 16, 2005, issue of September 16, 2005.
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As the Senate this week began to investigate what went wrong with the federal response to Hurricane Katrina, Jewish elected officials on opposite sides of the aisle offered sharply different approaches to answering the question.

Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, took the lead in demanding that the president appoint an independent panel along the lines of the 9/11 Commission to investigate Katrina-related failures, saying that was the only way to get an impartial result.

“What we learned in 9/11 is… that it’s not a good idea to have the politicians do this investigating,” Schumer said at a September 8 press conference. “Active, elected politicians always have one ax to grind or another.”

However, Senator Norm Coleman, a Minnesota Republican, disagreed, insisting in a telephone interview with the Forward that the Katrina response should be investigated by a bipartisan, bicameral congressional panel such as the one that probed the Iran-Contra scandal. Coleman blamed Democrats for political “finger pointing” in the wake of the disaster.

“We’ve got to stop politicizing this,” he said. “Unfortunately, that is what the other side is doing.”

The two lawmakers also took competing approaches to the post-Katrina rebuilding effort. Teaming up with Rep. William Jefferson, a Louisiana Democrat, Schumer outlined a series of programs based on those he said worked well in New York City after the 9/11 attacks. Under the Democrats’ proposal, the efforts would be administered largely through the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Community Development Block Grant program.

Coleman said that soon he would propose that a rebuilding commission consisting of former mayors and governors be established to determine “best practices” for the area. He said he was working with Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, on the proposal.

“I don’t think the rebuilding of New Orleans should be in the hands of HUD,” he said.

Such debates come as the Senate’s Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, which oversees the Homeland Security Department and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, convened hearings this week to probe what went wrong.

Even as he opened the hearings, Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said he supported an independent investigation of the disaster.

Lieberman, in a September 7 interview with National Public Radio, said that he and Susan Collins, Maine’s junior senator and the ranking Republican on the committee, “are not in the blame game or head-rolling business; we’re in the investigatory business to figure out what happened.”

In declining to affix blame, Lieberman stood apart from the Democratic leadership, which has been quick to fault the president’s leadership in the disaster’s aftermath. “I don’t like the blame game,” he told Fox News. “The hurricane wasn’t partisan. Our response to it shouldn’t be partisan.”

Lieberman felt a bit of his own political heat this week when a transcript of the June 19, 2002, confirmation hearing of now-departed FEMA director Michael Brown was posted on the Internet, allowing bloggers to ridicule what they described as the senator’s softball questioning. Lieberman defended his conduct of the hearing, which he said was typical for such nominees.

Two Jewish Democratic lawmakers from South Florida, whose congressional districts span the most hurricane-prone territory in the nation, were among the most vociferous critics of the president and of FEMA.

Rep. Robert Wexler, whose district encompasses parts of Palm Beach and Broward counties, could claim to be well ahead of the curve in criticizing the agency’s management: Wexler already had called for Brown’s firing last year, when local newspapers uncovered evidence of some $30 million of fraud related to FEMA’s response to Hurricane Frances (see related opinion article, Page 1).

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, whose district lies in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, said that FEMA had been handing out checks “like candy” after Frances and other hurricanes hit in 2004 — that is, during the last presidential campaign.

“FEMA has been transformed into a political organization,” Wasserman Schultz said.

She said her constituents are “just livid” at FEMA’s response to the Gulf Coast disaster, but also fearful that the agency would prove similarly inadequate when the next big storm hits them. Wasserman Schultz said that, at minimum, FEMA needs to be extracted from the Homeland Security Department and its director restored to Cabinet status.

“If we don’t make sure FEMA becomes independent,” she said, “we can do all the investigations in the world, it will happen again.”

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