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Saturday, October 29, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Bush wants $17 billion in hurricane relief shifted

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The White House on Friday sent Congress a request to use $17 billion approved for hurricane relief for new purposes, such as rebuilding highways, levees and federal facilities damaged by the storms.

Even though almost $40 billion remains in Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) coffers, federal rules restrict its use. The request would transfer these funds to projects repairing Interstate 10 in Mississippi and Louisiana, strengthening levees, rebuilding military bases such as Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi and other recovery-related construction.

White House budget chief Joshua Bolten acknowledged that earlier administration requests overestimated the cost of the immediate response to the hurricanes. When a $52 billion aid bill passed in early September, Bolten estimated that those funds might last only a few weeks.

Now, Bolten said that even after diverting $17 billion in FEMA emergency funds to 11 Cabinet departments and the Environmental Protection Agency, FEMA should have enough funding to last through May for activities such as clearing debris and providing financial help to victims.

The major items in the White House request include:

• $6.6 billion for the Pentagon to repair military facilities such as the Keesler base and the Naval Air Station in New Orleans, repair Navy ships and to pay the costs of military deployments to the region.

• $2.2 billion to the Housing and Urban Development Department to restore housing units for low-income Gulf Coast residents, provide rental assistance and give poor families ownership of rehabilitated federal housing stock.

• $2.4 billion for transportation-related needs such as repairing highways and airport control towers.

• $1.6 billion for the Army Corps of Engineers to repair levees, flood control and navigation projects. Included is $4.6 million for an expedited study to determine the best way to reduce future flooding and storm damage in New Orleans.

Congress in September rushed through $62 billion in Katrina relief, but the pace of spending has slowed since the first days of the disaster. The upcoming request is expected to suffice until spring, when longer-term projects in areas that sustained the most damage can be more precisely estimated.

In a related development, the Senate unanimously passed a measure Friday that will require an inspector-general investigation into the controversial $236 million deal to lease three ships from Carnival Cruise Lines for emergency housing after Hurricane Katrina.

The measure, which was attached to a bill that authorizes funding for the Coast Guard, calls on the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general to determine if the deal "was appropriate and reasonable." The Department of Homeland Security oversees FEMA, which brokered the agreement.

The contract was negotiated after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region in late August. The deal pays Carnival $192 million over six months for about 7,100 berths. The company also was authorized to receive up to $44 million in reimbursements for fuel, waste removal and other expenses.

The ships were initially intended for evacuees but are being used primarily to house emergency workers.

Critics have portrayed the deal as a boondoggle.

Material on Carnival Cruise Lines was supplied from the Los Angeles Times.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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