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Senate OKs $10.5 billion disaster bill

Hastert comments on rebuilding irk Louisiana governor



New Orleans (Louisiana)
Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)
Dennis Hastert

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Senate convened in special session Thursday night and approved a $10.5 billion disaster relief request from the Bush administration to aid victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Only a few Senate leaders were required to approve the measure by voice vote. The House is expected to do the same when it takes up the matter Friday.

In the meantime, Speaker Dennis Hastert took some heat Thursday for questioning whether flood-stricken New Orleans should be rebuilt as it once was. (Full story)

The Bush administration asked Congress for $10 billion in additional funds for the Federal Emergency Management Agency and another $500 million for the Pentagon for its hurricane relief work, said White House budget chief Josh Bolten.

FEMA has been spending $500 million a day on disaster relief and had about $2.5 billion remaining in its disaster relief fund for the remainder of the fiscal year, Bolten said.

"We therefore felt it was prudent not to wait until next week when the Congress returns to make this request but to ensure that there would be no disruption and no uncertainty about funding," he said.

Katrina is believed to have killed more than 180 people on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and thousands are feared dead in New Orleans and its surrounding parishes.

Most of New Orleans was flooded when two of the levees that keep water out of the city, which is largely below sea level, failed in the wake of the storm.

In an interview Wednesday with the Daily Herald, a suburban newspaper in Chicago, Illinois, Hastert questioned whether it made sense to spend billions of dollars to rebuild a city "that's 7 feet under water."

"It looks like a lot of that place could be bulldozed," said the Illinois Republican.

"Your heart goes out to the people," Hastert told the paper. "But there are some real tough questions to ask. How do you go about rebuilding this city? What precautions do you take?

"When the electricity goes out and everything else goes out -- you don't have the pumps to pump it out either. Because it doesn't work either."

Hastert said he thought the issue merited a second look. "But you know we build Los Angeles and San Francisco on top of earthquake fissures, and they rebuild too. Stubbornness," he said.

Hastert's office later issued what his aides called a clarification of his remarks insisting he was not calling for the city to be abandoned or relocated.

But Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco made it clear she wanted more than just a clarification from the speaker.

"To destroy hope when hope is all we have left -- I demand an immediate apology," she said.

Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, whose father was a longtime mayor of New Orleans, said the city and its surrounding parishes are not just "worth saving, but they are worth every penny of a complete rebuilding effort."

She said Hastert "raises a debate that we can address at some time in the future. Right now, however, we have important work to do."

"My comments about rebuilding the city were intended to reflect my sincere concern with how the city is rebuilt to ensure the future protection of its citizens and not to suggest that this great and historic city should not be rebuilt," the statement said.

Bolten said Hastert's comments did not come up when President Bush spoke to congressional leaders about the disaster aid bill.

Bolten said the $10.5 billion was a "rough calculation" of what was needed for the first phase of relief efforts.

"Something that our folks on the ground have told us is that it's almost impossible to gauge what will be necessary to achieve recovery in New Orleans until it's basically drained out," he said.

CNN's Ted Barrett contributed to this report.

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