Mar 23 2007

Bill holds funding for federal disaster center

Mobile Press Register


WASHINGTON -- In a renewed bid to put a federal disaster response center in Mobile, U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby has added $6 million for the project to an emergency spending bill but without an earlier proviso that it be part of a planned maritime museum on the city's waterfront.

After the Press-Register raised questions of the proposed center's "survivability" at that location, Shelby said Thursday that he told federal administrators "they ought to decide where is the best place to put it."

"But they want to put it in Mobile."

Shelby, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, spoke minutes after the panel waved through the $122 billion measure on a voice vote.

The bill would steer the bulk of that money to military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, while seeking withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq by next spring.

But the measure also contains a host of sweeteners, including $20 million in assistance for Alabama's fishing industry and a waiver of federal cost-sharing requirements for disaster aid following Hurricane Katrina.

The waiver could save the state of Alabama and local governments more than $20 million, according to U.S. Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Birmingham.

The House version of the spending bill now contains the Alabama waiver as well, U.S. Rep. Bud Cramer, D-Huntsville, said Thursday. The legislation had already covered the other four Gulf Coast states.

"I am pleased that we were able to ensure the people of Alabama are provided the same opportunities for hurricane relief ...," Cramer said in a statement. The full House is slated to vote on the overall measure today. If the legislation passes, it will still have to be reconciled with whatever emerges from the full Senate.

President Bush has already promised to veto the House measure, both because it too contains a timeline for withdrawal from Iraq and because it would cost more than $20 billion over what he initially requested.

In a statement earlier this week, the White House budget office also took aim at the cost-share waiver, noting that the federal government is already picking up 90 percent of rebuilding costs on "public infrastructure" projects along the Gulf Coast.

Although majority Democrats added the extra funds partly in hopes of enticing Republican support, it's unclear how many GOP lawmakers will break ranks with Bush. U.S. Rep. Jo Bonner, R-Mobile, has not decided how he will vote on the House bill, a spokeswoman said late Thursday afternoon.

The House version does not include money for the proposed disaster response center.

During the Senate Appropriations Committee's debate, Shelby, R-Tuscaloosa, first sought to strike the Iraq withdrawal language on the grounds that it would "undermine" the troops but then agreed to hold off until the full Senate takes up the bill.

Asked later whether Shelby would vote for the final legislation if that language is included, spokeswoman Katie Boyd said that he "will make a concerted effort to resolve the issue on the floor."

If built, the proposed disaster response center would be a first for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is better known for weather forecasting and fisheries management.

In a separate spending bill during the summer, Shelby inserted $20 million for the project with a stipulation that the facility would be part of the National Maritime Museum of the Gulf of Mexico.

But the bill died late last year in a massive budget pile-up. While Shelby had said that the project would promote better disaster response, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers maps indicate the proposed center could face a worst-case storm surge of more than 14 feet in a Category 3 hurricane.

As the Press-Register has previously reported, NOAA has also looked at Mobile Regional Airport further inland as a site for the center. An NOAA spokesman could not be reached late Thursday for comment on the status of the search.

Assuming that the initial $6 million installment wins congressional approval, Shelby indicated that he could later seek more money. "We're looking at whatever we need."