Transcript: GOP Senate Press Conference on Katrina | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Transcript: GOP Senate Press Conference on Katrina

SENATE NEWS CONFERENCE ON HURRICANE KATRINA, U.S. CAPITOL, TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 6, 2005

SPEAKERS:
U.S. SENATOR KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON (R-TX)
U.S. SENATOR TRENT LOTT (R-MS)
U.S. SENATOR JEFF SESSIONS (R-AL)
U.S. SENATOR MEL MARTINEZ (R-FL)

HUTCHISON: We are going to have the senators who are affected by this terrible natural disaster in our country, Katrina, talk about the efforts in their home states. And I want to start with Senator Lott , because he certainly suffered the most direct loss, and we have called and e-mailed both he and Thad Cochran, but so many of us had gone to his beautiful 150-year-old home and were just touched by the loss of that beautiful home.

But I want to say that all of us in the Senate are ready to go forward, to help these victims of this disaster in the best possible way that we can.
We are trying to go in many different fronts, including our charitable giving and trying to help raise money for these people. I personally have gone to visit both the Houston Astrodome and the
Dallas Convention Center where these people coming from Louisiana are being treated and served in the very best way that we can.
I had a personal experience that was very heartwarming yesterday, when I talked to a woman in the convention center who said her son was in the Navy and she wanted to get him a message that she was fine and that his wife and their son was fine -- and she was in Dallas; they
were in Houston.
And we were able to contact him on the USS Harry Truman. And he sent back a very long e-mail to be delivered to his mother, which it was today, that he was so relieved to know that they were all fine and that he wants all of them to come to Virginia to his home to live with him.

HUTCHISON: So we do these little things to try to help as much as we can, and the Senate stands ready to do that.
Let make first ask Senator Lott from Mississippi, who lost his own home, then Senator Sessions from Alabama, and then Senator Martinez from Florida to talk about what's going on in their states,
and then we'll all take questions.

LOTT : Thank you, Senator Hutchison, and thank you for your comments and your expression of concern and for being a good neighbor.
Our neighboring states of Texas and Alabama and Florida have really reached out. Even though they've had their own disasters to cope with in many respects, they really have been working hard to help us.
While I was home, my first day there, I looked up and two men came up from -- I think it was Burke (ph), Florida. I never really quite figured out where they were from, except I knew they were from Florida.
And they said, "Look, we got six men, a Bobcat and a front-end loader. How can we help?"
And I said, "If you could just clear this road, and we've got a little lady over here that can't get out of her house. If you would cut a path in there, that would help."
They went to work. I never saw them the rest of the day, except I heard them. They were working.
That story has been replicated many, many, many times.
Our Alabama friends have just opened their doors and their homes for our people. And a lot of people now are evacuees, they are displaced. Many of them would have been homeless.
And I must say that disasters of this magnitude are certainly equalizers, people of all kind of economic and, you know, poverty and wealthy people, and people of all races and backgrounds, all of them have been devastated, when you've lost everything you've had.
But I think you also need to remember, as we have tried to, a lot of people have lost loved ones. Some of them still have not been found.
One of the reasons I'm here now is I want to just say on a personal basis that this is a devastation area, devastation like I've never seen before.

LOTT : And I've worked with disasters for 37 years -- hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, ice storms. In fact, I'm looking for locusts real soon to come flying in. I've never seen anything like this.
You can't comprehend it when you see the pictures, as horrifying as they may be, or when you fly over it. But when you get on the ground, the personal tragedy is just unbelievable.
And I'm not one that is running around trying to fix blame. It never is perfect after a disaster. It takes time. It takes effort. But I've seen magnificent effort put forth by government officials,
charities, the Red Cross, Salvation Army, volunteers, individuals, churches.
Yesterday, just a local church close to where we live shipped out two 18-wheelers of food, cleaning supplies, disinfectants. Nobody paid for it. Nobody asked to pay for it. Nobody even asked for what they sent. They just sent it, and they sent it to churches actually
on the ground.
I'm back because I want to make sure people understand how difficult this is going to be to recover, to begin thinking about the best way we can find solutions and take action.
We're going to have to change the law in some respects, and I can identify those very quickly.
I've also been reaching out to a group of experts to help us understand how we can do this better and quicker.
For instance, I know that California after the earthquake rebuilt the bridges and overpass of Interstate 10 not in two years and two months, like ordinarily would have been required, but in two months and two days.
How did they do that? And I found out the answer.
And so I'm going to work with our legislature in Mississippi, going to want to work with Senator Hutchison, these gentlemen here.
I've already talked to Senator Collins and I've said please don't have a hearing tying up the people that are making decisions trying to fix blame. If you're going to have a hearing, let's have a hearing on innovative ways to recover and recover fast.
And that's what we're trying to do.
Are we working on problems? Yes.
You know, as I came up the stairwell, I was making calls about getting FEMA representatives on the ground in critical places. I was calling about the difficulty we've had in moving mobile homes out of Georgia and Alabama into Mississippi.
But there's a huge effort under way.

LOTT : And I want to thank the American people and all that have helped us and are going to help us.
I do have a list of things we need and I'll be glad to share that with you.
It's still basics. You know, we still need food, supplies, baby supplies in particular. We need equipment, you know, chain saws, axes. We need fuel, fuel, fuel. And like on chain saws, you need it mixed. And a chain saw's no good unless you've got something running.
And we need manpower. Anybody in America that can get a chain saw and come and just go to work -- we need that.
We have had great stories of people coming from Illinois, the National Guard unit from New York. I flew in a Blackhawk helicopter yesterday that was assisted by Blackhawks from New York.
Michigan National Guardsmen were some of the first to arrive to help us secure our areas from looters and to keep people out of dangerous areas.
We're still working now with health and safety, not recovery or reconstruction. That will come.
But with the help of the American people, we will get through this and we'll come back better and stronger.
And we need it for our country, actually. This is a storm that didn't just hit the Mississippi Gulf Coast; it hit the country. There are still refineries shut down along the coastline and oil that's
pumped out of the Gulf.
Perhaps as many as 600,000 jobs have been lost. That will have a national impact.
But we're not going to list our problems, we're going to list our needs and we're going to ask you to help us get them delivered.
Thank you.

HUTCHISON: Senator Sessions.

SESSIONS: Trent , our sympathies are extended to you and your loss. That was a house that had stood through storms for 150 years, including Camille, and it's now no more.
Biolabatri (ph), Alabama, a middle-class fishing community, had at least six feet more of water than we've ever seen. Most of the houses on the west end of Dauphin Island -- our beachfront just below Mobile -- are gone.
The surge that came up Mobile Bay exceeded Camille or Frederick or any of the other floods. Houses that flooded had never flooded before.

SESSIONS: So we took a real hit.
We are pleased that fundamentally, power is back on, about 90 percent is. The state docks are operating. And the city is basically open for business, although we have quite a number of people that have suffered greatly.
I spent three days with my wife in the Bayou La Batre, Coden area. There were about 30 miles -- you would have to go 30 miles to get electricity. The phones weren't working. The water was not
working. And who appears? The Salvation Army is there first and foremost the very next day serving meals. The next day, (inaudible) the world.
The Volunteers of America, a first faith-based group came in and is just doing tremendous work there. A garden club in North Carolina sent $250. Church groups are sending stuff.
Two Alabama mayors adopted the towns of Coden and Bayou La Batre, and they sent truckloads of water and ice and material immediately, really before the government has been able to fully respond.
And it helped people get through those very tough times.
I would share the story of Spencer Collier (ph), a young state trooper, got elected to the Alabama legislature. His house had four feet of water in it. At the height of the storm, they got 911 calls.
He got with the marine resource officer and took their boat down to the -- put it in the water. By the time they got their part, the water had surged so much, the entire vehicle was underwater.
In 100-mile-per-hour winds, they made six trips of over a mile each. One boat sank. They got another boat. They brought out women and children. One disabled man they found floating in his house on a mattress and they brought him in.
So this is the kind of thing that's happening.
And as my wife said, there's nobody whining, nobody complaining, they're hurting. We need to help them.
I believe America will help them, but I think the spirit is good. And I salute the mayors and the local people, Governor Riley, for taking charge from day one, finding out what needed to be done and getting it there.
Ours is a finite problem. It's far greater in the Louisiana and Mississippi area. And I tell you, we've got to figure out how to do this.
And, Trent , I could not agree with you more that speed is important.

LOTT : Yes.

SESSIONS: The sooner we get this infrastructure back, the sooner these businesses will be back, the sooner people can hire their employees again. And some of this stuff has just got to be done in an extraordinarily fast turnaround time.

SESSIONS: And if we do that, we're going to be a lot better than doddling around.

HUTCHISON: Senator Martinez.

MARTINEZ: Well, let me say that all Floridians, I think, our hearts go out to the folks in the Gulf Coast. We had a visit by Katrina, but a much gentler version of Katrina in the south Florida
area.
And while there was damage and devastation there, certainly nothing that compares to what Katrina did in the Gulf Coast north of us.
And so Governor Bush and the entirety of Florida's responders were able to not only take care of our needs in the state, but also provide assistance. Over 3,800 Floridians, first responders, National
Guardsmen and others went on to Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana to provide assistance and be of help.
I, Senator Lott , could not agree with you more about the need for us to be forward thinking and forward looking about how we get the immediate help to people that need it today, how we look to the medium term of how we improve the recovery and resources that are needed in
order to get it done.
Florida last year was devastated by four terrible hurricanes. And the reconstruction and the recovery from those is still ongoing in places. We understand well what you're going through, although the magnitude of what you've experienced we did not experience last year.
And we just, I think, as Floridians -- but I think as all Americans -- want to pull together at a time like this, to come together as a people to make sure that we move forward, that we are going to be better by what has happened and we don't allow this to be a permanent setback but only a temporary detour.

MARTINEZ: As difficult as it is, we've got no choice but to pull together as a nation, to pull together as all Americans to help the people in need, to help them get on with their lives and reconstruct
that which has been damaged.
And so we pledge to you, as Floridians, to let you know that we'll be there with you in all the way that we can.

LOTT : Where is Burt, Florida?

MARTINEZ: Burt, Florida is in north Florida.
(LAUGHTER)
(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: Senator Lott , have you spoken to Senator Collins and asked her not to hold hearings?

LOTT : No, no, no.

QUESTION: Are you concerned that some people might be trying to take political advantage of...
(CROSSTALK)

LOTT : I think hearings are in order.
But I think the first hearings should be: What can we do to be helpful? What legislation maybe needs to be modified?
I'd just give you one example.
Except for the immediate aftermath, where health and safety is involved, FEMA will not reimburse local officials for going on private property.
(AUDIO GAP)

HUTCHISON: We're having to add to our school systems. We're going to have to add security.
There are many costs for the states like Texas that are taking these people in need in, because that is America, we want to do it. But, obviously, we are going to have to reimburse cities, which are on
tight budgets with their added costs, to house these people, even on a temporary basis.
Another one -- and this is going to come into our committee, we have to modify the Jones Act to allow these cruise ships to take people, which they have said they are willing to do, to house them for a number of months. You have to have some waivers for the law to allow people to be carried on these ships with foreign flags. So there are many things we're going to have to look at, and I think Senator Lott is right that we want to do that first so that we can take immediate steps to help people in need and then...
(CROSSTALK)

LOTT : May I add one other thing?

LOTT : When I was making a list of things we need, manpower, supplies, we also need money to organizations that can get food and immediate help -- the charitable organizations like Red Cross,
Salvation Army.
You can live in a remote area of Wisconsin and your heart is going out to folks, just a little contribution will help them be able to get the food.
I witnessed it Wednesday of last week, people crying and sweating and working, and the Red Cross came by and said, "How about a warm meal and some water?" They just stopped and handed it out. I'm telling you, it was one of the best meals I ever had.

QUESTION: Senator Lott , do you think that this catastrophe and the cost of it will cause the American people to rethink our overseas commitments, maybe that we're spending too much money in Iraq and other places?

LOTT : Oh, there'll be time for us to assess and reassess all of our commitments, but my preliminary reaction is probably not.
I do believe that when you take actions to help people or to stop people over there, they're not going to come here. You can always look, and you should look -- are we doing it in the right way or is it too much or is it enough? And we'll go through that period of introspection.
But I don't think we should jump to saying, well, we're doing too much here, we're not doing enough there. Let's just work together to get through this, and then we'll -- we've got strong leadership in our president.
I want to emphasize this.
The president has been strong. The president has come to our area. He was in Mobile and he was in Biloxi, Mississippi. He was in Poplarville, Mississippi. No president has ever walked the damaged
streets of Poplarville, Mississippi, in the history of this country.
And he was in New Orleans and Baton Rouge. And let me tell you, I saw his eyes. I saw compassion and hurt and tears. And I saw passion, and I saw leadership. When I identified a problem to him yesterday, he didn't say, "Give it to me in writing." He picked up the phone and he issued an order.
And this is not partisan.

LOTT : John Kerry called my wife Tricia and me at our home -- I don't remember -- two or three days ago and said he and Teresa wanted to help. And I identified what we needed and he said, "Where can we land the plane?" And I told him. And I assigned a staff member to coordinate with him.
So Democrats, Republicans -- there's no philosophy, no party when you have a -- we've been attacked.
Let's just treat it like a military attack. And sometime, when you first get hit by surprise or you get hit where you didn't really expect it or by a larger force than you expected, it takes a little
time to get back on your feet and push back. But when the might of America engages to fight a problem, natural or military, there's nothing that can stop us.

QUESTION: Senator, what about price tag?
Senator Reid is saying $150 might be -- $150 billion might be a starting point. What's the ballpark since you've been on the ground? $150 billion, is that a fair amount?

LOTT : I have no idea.
You know, it's the magnitude of it. And, you know, you've got such difficult decisions, which some of these towns do. What do you do with the town?
Waveland, Mississippi, does not exist.
I had a guy that flew in from Kentucky with a load of supplies. I met him at the airport. He said, "Where do I go?" I told him the airport to go to, warned him to get gas, he couldn't have fuel there,
get out before dark, we had no lights. He said, "I'm going to Waveland, Mississippi." I said, "No, you're not." He said, "What do you mean?" I said, "There is no Waverly, Mississippi. You can't get
there."
What are we going to do with that?
And then what do we do in New Orleans with the pumps and the levees and the city?
I mean, these are big and tough decisions and we're just going to have to get the best thinkers we can working on it.
What I've been doing through my BlackBerry system, I've been contacting some of the best minds that I know in America, saying, "I'm up to my ears in debris and pain and suffering. Will you be thinking about this? Talk to other people. Give us some good ideas quickly.
Don't make it partisan or political. Send it to the president, send it to Harry Reid, send it to the speaker, send it to me, send it to Bill Frist, and let's see if we can't do some really good things not
only for this region, but it will be good for the country in the longer term."

QUESTION: Could you talk just for a moment about how you think that the health care crisis, education, all these things that the displaced people of Mississippi and Louisiana will need, how Congress
should deal with those problems?

LOTT : Let me just answer your question again.
It is going to be billions. And I've already said I assume it will be, you know, probably well in excess of $100 billion.
But I don't want to make it too small or too high. We've got to do what it takes. And we'll figure out how much that's going to be.
I am worried about health issues.
I've talked to Secretary Leavitt. Again, having been through this before, usually in about two weeks after a major disaster, you begin to have people that have heart problems, depression problems,
mental problems.
If you cut yourself in Gulfport, Mississippi today, you could get a bad infection.
We've got millions of -- I think, about a million pounds of shrimp that was rotting. We had debris from the port poultry. It is very dangerous. And we are prepositioning medicines, chemicals,
personnel. We're arranging for them to have a place to sleep.
The health-care costs are going to be something we have to deal with.

LOTT : And the health problems from Biloxi, Gulfport and certainly in New Orleans could be very serious.
I believe that Secretary Leavitt and CDC have taken actions or taken actions that will help us with that.
We already have pharmaceuticals and chemicals prepositioned in Mississippi in an undisclosed location, because they could be dangerous if they fell in the wrong hands.
So those sort of things are happening.
There are so many stories of things that have happened. The secretary of transportation quickly waived the hours of service rules, because we had drivers driving tankers with fuel trucks who were way exceeding what the law allowed.
Utility drivers -- I mean, they are up to their ears in debris and limbs and dangerous wires and they were being told, you can't drive anymore. And they waived that quickly. That little decision by
one secretary -- Cabinet secretary made a huge difference in getting fuel to us and getting utility back on.
And I could write you a list of hundreds of those.

QUESTION: But does Congress need to make sure that a lot of these displaced -- now homeless and possibly jobless people have access to, say, Medicaid or some of these other things?

LOTT : Oh, yes, that has already been done. I don't have it before me now. I have so many reports that I was reading on the way up here.
All kinds of waivers have already been put in place on Medicaid and Medicare so that people that are not now eligible for prescription drugs under Medicare will be able to get it.
So those types of actions are occurring. Those are the things you don't hear about, because they are done.
You know, Secretary Chao called me -- I don't know -- Thursday morning to say we are releasing today $60 million in unemployment compensation and compensation to unemployed workers, and we're extending from a few days the time that they can get this assistance.
But we're also doing things to get people back to work.
The utility companies have done a magnificent job.
Yesterday, I talked to one of the utility companies. I said, "There's a plant in Lumberton, Mississippi that can employ 150 people. Power's on in the town, but it's not on at the industrial park. If you could get that power on, 150 people could go to work tomorrow
morning."
That power was on before I left Poplarville, Mississippi. They went there, they fixed it, and 150 people went to work today.

QUESTION: Getting back to the debate over the creation of Department of Homeland Security, much was made of folding FEMA under that agency. As you look at this hurricane, I know it's a little
early, but as you look at the disaster that you've experienced personally, do you think maybe it was a mistake to take FEMA away from being a Cabinet-level position?

LOTT : You know, it's a little premature to make an irrevocable statement on that and I'd want to talk to a lot more people.
But preliminarily, my opinion is, absolutely it was a mistake. It shouldn't have been done. FEMA should be a free standing, independent agency reporting only to the president of the United
States to cut back on any possible bureaucratic delays.
There's no need why they should answer to a Cabinet secretary; they should answer to the big man.

LOTT : And I do think that maybe -- again, I'm not fixing blame, but I have a sense that maybe some of the things that have happened, being in that department, were not positive.
And so that is one example of something I want us to really look at.
But you can't blame that on anybody but us. We made that decision. It was a thought through decision.
And if you go back and study the history -- and I know that history back to 1969 -- we've gone through a lot of iterations of what is now the FEMA. It used to be the Emergency Preparedness Agency. It was over at the old EOB. It's kind of bumped around, almost an offering.
And when you don't have a disaster, you think, what is that? But when you have a disaster, you better be ready.
So we need to look at all that, though. And I'll put in my two cents worth, but a couple of us were discussing that very point yesterday.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

LOTT : Again, I'm not going to blame anybody right now that's still at work.
You know, pardon the slang, but I think you'll understand that it helps for emphasis: My mama don't raise no idiot. I ain't going to bite the hand that's trying to save me.
I'm not going to be criticizing anybody in the federal government, the state government, private companies that are trying to help me now.
Are they making mistakes? Yes.
You know, just like right now there needs to be an overall command center -- there is. And all the key players need to be in it. You can't make a disaster decision if you're handing out bottled
water. If you're doing that -- you know, I could be down there digging through the rubble in my neighborhood. I could be down there helping my brother-in-law nail up plywood. I could be down there posing for pictures.
No, I can do more good for the people that I love by being here and explaining what's going on, what's happening, what we need, make sure that we're communicating what we may need from appropriations
from different agencies.
So, again, mistakes are being made.
We are still human beings. And I have learned that a disaster of this magnitude brings out the best in so many good people and it brings out the worst in some others.
Let's just emphasize the best and the good.

QUESTION: You're on the Finance Committee and you're also concerned about airlines. I just wondered if you would support a fuel tax break or a suspension for the airlines given what's happened to the fuel prices?

LOTT : It has been suggested already in the last couple of days, perhaps at a state level. You know, Florida, for instance, in the past has shown the flexibility. They'll give gas tax holidays to
encourage people to buy gas in Florida.
I don't know -- some states perhaps are looking at some temporary suspension of the fuel tax. Maybe we should look at that for aviation or others.
But again, let's make sure we've thought it through.
The gas -- you know, the gasoline problem is a problem right now. I mean, supply is a huge problem when you lose the oil rigs that we had in the Gulf, when you have six refineries shut down, when you have trouble getting enough tankers to get the fuel where it needs to be,
and then when you look at the cost that we've been dealing with.
But again, the president opened up the SPRO. The international community opened up their supplies.
(CROSSTALK)
(UNKNOWN): ... 60 million gallons.

LOTT : This is huge and -- oh yes, did that, great. Well, they did it.
I think, you know, fuel tax holidays in aviation or at the federal level -- we should look at that.

QUESTION: Senator, you have a reconciliation package -- a spending reconciliation package due up I think next week, a tax reconciliation package that's due up the week after.
Do you think that the agenda should stay put? Or is it time to make some changes?

LOTT : I think it's premature maybe right now to make that call, and certainly it's not appropriate for me. That's for our leaders to decide in consultation with our people.
Nothing will be the same again. It's going to change. And we're going to have to take a look at that.
But I also will tell you, before the hurricane wiped us out, a lot of people were saying, you know, are you all paying attention to deficits? And now that's going to be even more difficult.
We can walk and chew gum at the same time. We can show discretion and judgment and we can acknowledge that you're going to have to spend more money than you thought you would in the name of this emergency.
But I think maybe I'm still a little bit too numb with all that's going on to make the right decision on that sort of thing.
(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: ... encourage investment?

LOTT : I do think we need to look at waiving a lot of laws on the books.

LOTT : I do think we need to look at tax incentives to encourage investment in business. There are models we can follow.
And frankly -- did I mention the California Interstate 10? I did.
Now, there's a case where -- the way that they were able to get that built in two months and two days, which would have been a two-year project, is the governor had the authority to waive all
applicable regulatory and hearing requirements. And they awarded a contract through a speedy process and they gave them incentives and penalties.
And the contractor got more money from the incentives, because he finished it in two months, than he got from the contract itself.
Hey, can we learn from that?
That's what Kay was talking about.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) mistakes still are being made. Does that argue that changes in leadership might aid the current effort?

LOTT : You know, the last time I checked, when a ship is going down, you don't throw the admiral overboard.
But this ship is still afloat.
If somebody said, you pick somebody to hammer, I don't know who I'd pick. I did threaten to physically beat a couple of people in the last couple of days, figuratively speaking, but I don't -- as you well know, I don't take no when I'm trying to help people very easily.
But a lot of the problems we've had turned out to be rumors.
I called the head of the Mississippi Department of Transportation and told him I was going to tear his throat out if he tried to stop me going to my home area on Wednesday morning, because everybody was saying, you can't go, the roads are closed. And I said I'm going if I
have to crawl.
The road wasn't closed. It was never closed. I got there quicker than normal. That was a pure rumor.
I've had two friends that were dead last Tuesday; they were alive Friday.
It just goes on and on and on.
Now, there are problems with communications, literally, and also figuratively between agencies.
The mobile home thing has really bothered me. So we're talking to FEMA up here, and they're saying, "Well, your Mississippi emergency management people have not requested the trailers."
I had the MEMA guy -- Mississippi guy -- sitting right there with me.
"Did you request the trailers?"
"Yes, 20,000, two or three days ago."
"OK. He requested the trailers."
"Oh, OK, well, the problem is, they don't know where to take
them."
I said, "Are you kidding me? The coast is slick. Just put it anywhere. Just get them there. We'll put them in the right place."
But they had not identified specific places for the trailers to be delivered.
So a lot of that is FEMA in Mississippi, FEMA in Alabama, MEMA in Mississippi, the emergency management people in Alabama, FEMA in Washington, the Corps of Engineers, the Navy -- getting all thosepeople to communicate in a proper way.
But in the end, somebody has to say, "Do this."
So I found that I give orders -- even though I have no authority -- and it's amazing how many times people do it.

QUESTION: Don't you think all that communication should have been coordinated earlier?

LOTT : Part of the problem is when you hit ground zero, these things don't work. You can call out...
(CROSSTALK)
QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

LOTT : Well, you know, look, coordination is an evolving thing. It's always a problem.
And again, I want to end as I began, this is probably the biggest natural disaster to ever hit this country. The devastation and the difficulty in distribution is just the worst I've ever seen.
Give the people a break and help them. They'll get it done.
Thank you.

HUTCHISON: Thank you.
END

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