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Lawmakers relay disaster relief assurances, concerns to FEMA chief

By Paul Courson, CNN
  • Lawmakers express constituents' flood concerns in a meeting with FEMA's chief
  • "Hurricane Irene had no partisan preference," Rep. Welch says
  • A congressional coalition will help match resources with needs, Welch's office says

Washington (CNN) -- Lawmakers and the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency met for about an hour Thursday to discuss FEMA's response to flooding along the East Coast, and to announce a loose coalition of lawmakers to monitor that response.

FEMA Director Craig Fugate said the damage is still adding up. "The remnants of (Tropical Storm) Lee have actually caused new flooding, taking some of the areas that were hit by (Hurricane) Irene and they're flooding again," he said.

A damage estimate was impossible in some cases, he told reporters after the meeting.

"We haven't been able to get in to look at some of the infrastructure," Fugate said. "Now it's flooding again."

The meeting on Capitol Hill was intended to both assure FEMA it has congressional support at a time of federal budget problems, and to pass along concerns that lawmakers have been hearing from constituents.

"You really can't have this division of local, state, and federal" when it comes to a coordinated relief effort, Fugate told reporters afterward, saying the meeting was useful in explaining how disaster relief programs work.

But, Fugate warned, "If it was just FEMA, it wouldn't be enough of us. It's not just FEMA," he said, with a nod toward other federal agencies and regional responders, including non-government organizations like the Red Cross.

About two dozen Republicans and Democrats attended the meeting, apparently putting aside some of their political division.

"Hurricane Irene had no partisan preference," said Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vermont, who organized the meeting with Fugate. "Anyone in the wake of its fury suffered the consequences, and we in Congress understand we have to work together to help."

In an effort to do that, Welch said he's working across the aisle to form what he called a loose coalition to oversee the disaster response. "The specifics of how we do it is going to be the ongoing discussion, but we want to do it and we want to do it quickly," he told reporters.

His office later issued a statement explaining the coalition "will work to ensure FEMA has all of the appropriations and support it needs to do its job," and to provide an information path to FEMA as the agency carries out recovery efforts in congressional districts hit by flooding.

"The idea of doing away with FEMA has seen its last breath," said Rep. Bill Pascrell of New Jersey. The Democrat noted flood-related evacuations were ordered around the Passaic River in his home district as the meeting with FEMA got under way.

Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, a Republican presidential candidate, said last month that FEMA should be dissolved.

House Minority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Maryland, was among the 22 members at the meeting.

He told reporters "We want to make sure that FEMA has the resources necessary to help our people that have been so assaulted by storms, not only Irene, but the continuing flood of water that continues to present itself to us."

No Republicans spoke with reporters after the meeting.

Welch's office said the co-chairs of the coalition that will work with FEMA will be Welch and Reps. Chris Gibson, R-New York; Rosa DeLauro, D-Connecticut; Nan Hayworth, R-New York; G.K. Butterfield, D-North Carolina; Thomas Marino, R-Pennsylvania; Bill Pascrell, D-New Jresey; and Walter Jones, R-North Carolina.