- The Washington Times
Thursday, August 31, 2017

The White House said Thursday that it is preparing a multibillion-dollar spending bill to speed relief to victims of Hurricane Harvey, as agencies at all levels of government struggled to ease the pain of those displaced by the massive floods and to limit damage to the U.S. economy.

Senior administration officials told The Washington Times that the White House is floating a proposal with Congress of nearly $6 billion as a down payment to cover aid through the end of the year. Another request would follow.

Federal officials tapped the nation’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve in an effort to combat rising gas prices as energy production along the battered Gulf Coast tumbled.

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Social Security officials were setting up emergency centers to dole out emergency benefit checks to those who are no longer in their homes, and Texas officials announced leeway for looming deadlines such as September vehicle tags.

On the ground in Texas, meanwhile, emergency workers continued to make dramatic rescues of people stranded by rising water. While television cameras rolled, a hospital in Beaumont, Texas, was evacuated after its water supply was cut off.

Vice President Mike Pence visited to help clear debris and lead a quick prayer for all affected by the storm. President Trump pledged $1 million of his personal fortune for the relief effort, the White House said.

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As government shifted into gear to provide assistance, the White House said it doesn’t have a price tag for federal aid. Presidential homeland security adviser Tom Bossert said estimates of more than $100 billion could be accurate.

“We’re going to need to go up and ask for a disaster supplemental shortly,” Mr. Bossert said. “It looks like about 100,000 affected homes. That’s a big number — some underinsured, some uninsured.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is quickly burning through the $3.6 billion it had in its disaster relief fund before Harvey made landfall over the weekend, meaning an immediate infusion will be needed, with a bigger aid package to come later.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has said the aid required could exceed $100 billion.

“There’s nobody that’s wrong with estimates right now,” Mr. Bossert said.

With hundreds of thousands flooded out of their homes, concerns are rising that displaced residents could face unreasonably high housing costs from unscrupulous landlords and other exorbitant prices for scarce goods. Mr. Bossert said the administration is monitoring the situation.

The storm’s death toll neared 40 Thursday afternoon. Mr. Bossert cautioned that more people could lose their lives during recovery operations as a result of accidents, heart attacks and other causes.

“In the immediate response and recovery phase, people will use chain saws, people will remove debris, people will be stressed,” he said. “Try to avoid strain and stress. Try to get to where there’s food, water and shelter. And take care of yourself so that you can then take care of others.”

Local, state and federal officials began to prepare for a long recovery with tens of thousands of people displaced potentially for weeks and with the U.S. economy feeling shock waves.

Energy Secretary Rick Perry tried to relieve pressure on gas prices by releasing 500,000 barrels of oil from the country’s 700-million-barrel reserve.

The Gulf Coast is a major area of production and refining, and Harvey knocked some 20 percent of the nation’s refining capabilities offline.

“This decision will authorize 200,000 barrels of sweet crude and 300,000 barrels of sour crude to be drawn down from [the reserve] and delivered via pipeline to the Phillips 66 refinery” in Louisiana, said Energy Department spokeswoman Jessica Szymanski. “The department will continue to provide assistance as deemed necessary and will continue to review incoming requests for SPR crude oil. Should the secretary decide to approve additional requests for an emergency exchange of crude oil from the SPR, the public will be notified.”

The drawdown announced Thursday — and clear signals from the Energy Department that more could be on the way — may raise political questions about the wisdom of President Trump’s 2018 budget proposal to cut the Strategic Petroleum Reserve in half.

The Environmental Protection Agency, meanwhile, granted emergency fuel waivers to 38 states and the District of Columbia.

The move temporarily suspends Clean Air Act requirements for reformulated and low-volatility gasoline. It also allows E15, gas containing 15 percent ethanol, to be sold. That fuel typically isn’t available during summer months because of ozone concerns.

The EPA also tried to tamp down fears after a Thursday morning explosion at a chemical plant in Crosby, Texas. In a joint statement released with Texas officials, the agency said it is treating the incident as a fire, not a major environmental hazard.

“At this time, we are responding to a fire, not a chemical release. Our focus remains on the safety of those around the facility, and we urge everyone in the area to follow the safety instructions of local authorities, specifically avoiding smoke and floodwaters,” the joint statement reads in part. “We continue to monitor smoke and air quality and the potential for additional fires in the area and have aerial assets ready to be deployed if any additional fires occur.”

The EPA also urged Texans to exercise caution when coming into contact with floodwaters.

“Precautions should be taken by anyone involved in cleanup activities or any others who may be exposed to floodwaters. These precautions include heeding all warnings from local and state authorities regarding boil water notices, swimming advisories or other safety advisories,” the agency said in a joint statement with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

Other agencies also kicked into gear.

The IRS announced an extension for Harvey-affected taxpayers who have filing deadlines looming. The Social Security Administration was working to get its regular benefit checks to people displaced by the storm, or where the U.S. Postal Service had suspended delivery.

Those who can’t receive payment because of Harvey can go to Social Security offices to get immediate emergency payment, the agency said.

The White House sought to tamp down fears that illegal immigrants could be snared if they try to get assistance.

“In terms of immediate lifesaving, no individual human being should worry about their immigration status, unless they’ve committed a crime on top of coming here illegally, when it comes to getting food, water and shelter,” Mr. Bossert said.

The Houston region has about 575,000 illegal immigrants, many of whom have been flooded out of their homes.

Mr. Bossert said authorities are not searching emergency shelters with an eye toward deportations but added that illegal immigrants are not eligible for long-term storm relief.

“If you’re an immigrant that’s looking for assistance that’s eligible for citizens, it’s my understanding that you’re not eligible in that case,” he said. “But I think that that doesn’t mean we’re going to let somebody starve or die of thirst or exposure.”

Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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