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NCC Special Commission Calls
for FEMA Independence

Washington, D.C., January 31, 2006 -- As President Bush prepares to address the nation this evening with his administration's plans for restoring the Gulf Coast region, the National Council of Churchesí Special Commission for the Just Rebuilding of the Gulf Coast is calling for radical changes in U.S. emergency relief efforts.

Special Commission Chair Bishop Talbert, left, and Rep. Jim Clyburn, chair of the U.S. House of Representatives Democratic Caucus

With numerous recent reports indicating that progress is moving at a snail's pace five months after the hurricanes devastated the region, and with time running out for evacuees in temporary housing (yesterday was the deadline for the more than 20,000 evacuees still in hotel/motel rooms to apply for an extension of benefits beyond Feb. 6), NCC's Special Commission is supporting Sen.Trent Lott (R-Miss.) in a call for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to be moved from under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS. "The system is a mess," said one of Lott's aides to members of NCC's Special Commission at a meeting on Capitol Hill last week. According to the aide, Senator Lott has been dismayed by the slow response to these natural disasters, noting that there was a better federal response to Hurricane Camille in 1969.

The members of the Special Commission believe that removing FEMA from DHS will help the agency better respond to natural disasters and prevent them from escalating to widespread ruin as was the case with hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Although Lott initially approved of FEMA becoming a part of DHS, he now believes it was an "absolute mistake" for the agency to be under DHS, said the aide.

In addition to recommending this change, the Special Commission voted to advocate for two other initiatives based on meetings in Washington last week: to call for the reinterpretation of the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, and to urge Congress to review the role and position of the Red Cross as a first responder.

Even with the extension of benefits that evacuees can receive if they met yesterday's deadline, FEMA will only be allowed to pay for hotel/motel rooms through March 1 for most evacuees because of the way the Stafford Act is being interpreted by DHS. The Special Commission is strongly urging DHS to reinterpret the Stafford Act so that evacuees are given more time in emergency housing and additional monetary assistance to help rebuild.

The Special Commission also determined that it is important to urge Congress to review the role and position of the Red Cross as a first responder because of the relief organization's bureaucratic nature and its inability to respond rapidly and sufficiently during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

"People have literally died because of the mishaps, mistakes and mismanagement of this situation. Now thousands are just a few weeks of being put on the streets of Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas and other states as federal funding for emergency housing is cut off," said Bishop Melvin G. Talbert, a retired United Methodist Bishop and chair of the Special Commission.

"Politics must be put aside and urgent action taken so that evacuees get the help that they need, and were promised, from the federal government," he said.

The Special Commission met in the nation's capital Jan. 25-26 to further its work to advocate for the just rebuilding of the Gulf Coast region. The meeting with Senator Lott's office was one of several such meetings held by members of the Special Commission, including a meeting with Rep. Jim Clyburn, chair of the Democratic Caucus, staff from Senator David Vitter's office (R-La.) and representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) and Enterprise Community Partners (formerly the Enterprise Foundation), a housing and community development organization that has been part of the effort to build new and more equitable communities in the Gulf Coast region.

"To celebrate the success of speaking truth to power with a rebuilt and restored Gulf Coast region, where communities of love, justice and tranquility exist for those who remained, returned, or resettled elsewhere due to the fair and equitable distribution of available human and material resources from all sectors of society around the world," was adopted as the vision statement for the Special Commission during last week's meeting. The Special Commission also agreed on a set of guiding principles for their work. A more detailed set of principles and a theological statement will also be released in the coming months.

These statements from the Special Commission will join a statement adopted by NCC's Eco-Justice Working Group in October that addressed the critical environmental issues that must be taken into consideration as restoration and rebuilding efforts take place in the Gulf Coast region.

"The Gospel compels the church to advocate on behalf of the voiceless, to be a champion for the rights of the powerless and an ardent guardian of God's creation," said the Eco-Justice Working Group statement. "The foundations of these renewed communities must be sound ecology, social equity, racial justice and pervasive compassion towards the least, the voiceless and the marginalized."

The Special Commission for the Just Rebuilding of the Gulf Coast was established by urgent action of NCC's Governing Board in September, shortly after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated the Gulf Coast region. In November the General Assembly affirmed the Special Commission and directed it to "strive for the greatest degree of coherence and comprehensive efforts in our rebuilding the Gulf Coast communities and in addressing the human inequities which exacerbated a natural disaster into wholesale calamity."

Contact NCC News: Leslie Tune, 202-544-2350


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