Plan will get people ‘back on their feet’

AS Congress hurried toward approval of a $51.8 billion (€41.77bn) emergency hurricane aid package, US President George Bush yesterday mapped a plan to get a wide range of government benefits - from medical care to job training - to storm victims who have been scattered around the US.

Mr Bush, under fire for the government’s response to the devastation so far, was to announce initiatives aimed at helping people “get back on their feet” in an address from the White House, spokesman Scott McClellan said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), stung by criticism it failed to act fast enough when Katrina hit, was preparing to hand out $2,000 debit cards for each household affected by the storm. At the Houston Astrodome, where many New Orleans evacuees are being housed, long lines formed to register.

Head of FEMA, Michael Brown, said: “The concept is to get them some cash in hand which allows them, empowers them, to make their own decisions about what do they need to have to start rebuilding.”

In addition, the Postal Service has delivered 15,000 Social Security cheques to collection points in areas affected by Katrina, despite being unable to locate 2,000 of its own workers.

Postmaster General John Potter vowed to get the cheques to customers.

“Regardless of where they are, we’ll get their mail to them. My message to everybody is, if they are relocated, please inform us.”

Separately, Democrats and Republicans agreed much had gone wrong in the government response to Hurricane Katrina but squabbled about what to do about it.

“There was a systemwide failure,” said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist after Republicans met with Mr Bush at the White House. He said there were problems at the local, state and federal levels and “we will get to the bottom of that” in a congressional investigation.

Democratic leader Harry Reid said on the Senate floor that a Republican-led probe would be biased.

He said Democrats would support the spending bill. But he complained most of the money would go to FEMA and said further measures were needed to deal with health care, housing and education.

The House of Representatives was expected to approve the emergency spending bill the Bush administration described as the latest instalment in the costly relief effort.

“We will in fact need substantially more” money, said White House budget director Josh Bolten, estimating the funds would cover expenses for “a few weeks”.

Prospects were more uncertain in the Senate, where Louisiana’s Democratic Sen Mary Landrieu threatened to hold out for more money. Republicans said amending the bill could lead to delays in getting it signed by Mr Bush before current funds are used up.

Democrats have pushed for an independent panel to investigate the disaster, similar to the commission that examined government missteps leading to the September 11, 2001, terror attacks.

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