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Cochran: New law should cover disaster recovery efforts

WASHINGTON — Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) says he’s confident that a $131-million backlog of disaster recovery projects in Mississippi — held in suspension as Congress worked to approve funding to replenish a federal disaster fund — will move forward with the enactment of an emergency spending bill.

President Obama last Thursday signed into law the FY2010 Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Bill (HR.4988), a $58-billion bill measure requested by the President in February to fund U.S. military and diplomatic operations in Afghanistan and Iraq and provide critically-needed money for disaster relief.

The new law provides $5.1 billion to replenish the Disaster Relief Fund administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. While Congress debated the supplemental bill, the fund had less than $900 million available to respond to disasters and FEMA carried more than $1.76 billion in arrears for projects already approved in designated federal disaster areas — including more than $131 million in Mississippi.

“The supplemental bill gives FEMA the green light to make good on projects that have already been approved in Mississippi and other states that have experienced disasters,” said Cochran, who is vice chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and the subcommittee that funds FEMA.

“Mississippi has suffered a series of natural disasters, including tornadoes and flooding. We’re still working at recovering from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and the oil spill has compounded the stress on our state. I regret that a depleted Disaster Relief Fund added to the woe caused by those events, but I am confident that FEMA now has the resources to fund disaster relief and hazard mitigation projects.”

FEMA director Craig Fugate last Friday indicated that funding restrictions would be lifted and that the agency would work closely with states to find the hazard mitigation and repair projects that have been delayed since February.

Cochran pointed out that the legislation provides additional assistance to Mississippi counties included in disaster declarations following severe tornadoes in April and May. The bill sets a 90-10 federal/nonfederal cost-share ratio for eligible recovery costs associated with recent natural disasters in Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky and Rhode Island.

To aid in tornado recovery efforts, Cochran also supported a provision that authorizes the implementation of a Farm Service Agency emergency forest restoration program focused on emergency protection and rehabilitation of wind- or water-eroded agriculture lands. The program will provide up to 75 percent of the costs incurred by landowners to rehabilitate and restore forest lands damaged by tornadoes.

The bill was initially crafted by the Senate Appropriations Committee, including the $68 million in emergency funding added to address immediate federal needs to respond to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. This funding includes $13 million for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to address the economic impacts of the spill on fishermen and fishery-dependent businesses.

Cochran also supported an amendment by Senator Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) to reallocate funds within the Department of Commerce to provide NOAA with another $15 million for fisheries disaster relief related to commercial fishing failures due to the oil spill, and $10 million to conduct an expanded stock assessment of fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico. Another $1 million was included for the National Academy of Sciences to conduct a long-term ecosystem impact study on the impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

In addition to disaster relief funding, the bulk of the funding in HR.4899 will support United States overseas contingency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as earthquake relief efforts in Haiti. The measure also provides $13.4 billion sought by the administration for the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide retroactive disability compensation and care to Vietnam veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange.

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