Magazine article Insight on the News

Quake Relief: Will Handouts Haunt Us?

Magazine article Insight on the News

Quake Relief: Will Handouts Haunt Us?

Article excerpt

Survivors of the 6.8-magnitude Northridge quake in Los Angeles aren't the only ones celebrating the signing of a $10.1 billion disaster relief package this week. Commuters in New York City and potato farmers in Idaho have reason to cheer, too.

The aid measure includes $10 million for relocation of New York's Penn Station and $1.4 million to combat a fungus causing potato blight.

Among the other "emergency appropriations" in the bill: $315 million to rebuild a freeway damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta quake in San Francisco and $1.2 billion for U.S. peace-keeping missions in Somalia, Iraq, Haiti and Bosnia.

It may seem petty to criticize these few items when the bulk of the money ($8.6 billion) indeed will be directed toward victims of the earthquake. And who could blame the nation's legislators for taking a ride on this one-time-only Quake Aid Express? Because the monies are "emergency supplemental appropriations," they are exempt from discretionary domestic spending caps imposed by the 1990 budget agreement and therefore do not need to be accompanied by corresponding spending cuts.

But it's not just these egregious additions that are a cause for concern -- it's the size of the entire package. Combined with $900 million previously released, the quake relief package includes $5.1 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, $1.5 billion in low-interest loans from the Small Business Association, $1.35 billion in highway funds, $575 million in housing assistance through the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and $500 million for a "presidential contingency fund."

Clinton administration officials have justified the size of the package (the nation's largest ever) on the grounds that the damage caused by the L.A. quake was unprecedented. As HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros noted, "It is appropriate because this is the largest disaster we have ever had."

Well, not exactly. The latest estimates put damage from the Northridge quake between $13 billion and $20 billion. But in terms of total dollars lost, the L.A. earthquake was not the largest in U.S. history nor even the decade. That distinction belongs to Hurricane Andrew, which caused $30 billion in damage and killed 53 in southwest Florida in 1992.

Yet Congress appropriated "only" $8.5 billion to cover combined relief efforts for Hurricane Andrew, Hurricane Iniki in Hawaii and Typhoon Omar in Guam. …

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