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Mississippi disaster chief tells Congress that recovery efforts need aid faster

In a hearing Tuesday on Capitol Hill about recovery efforts after Hurricane Sandy, Mississippi’s top emergency-management official told Congress that federal dollars need to be released to disaster relief officials sooner.

Government red tape can hold up money for people affected by storms such as Sandy, said Robert Latham, the executive director of the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, who’s overseen a dozen disasters in his state, from floods to tornadoes.

“We need to change the language in the law to allow for estimates,” Latham said. He urges allowing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to supply grants to local governments sooner, without waiting for detailed damage estimates.

His testimony before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee came the same day that FEMA issued its first large payment to New York City, more than a month after the devastating hurricane.

Republican Rep. John Mica of Florida, the panel’s chairman, agreed with Latham.

“There has to be a quicker way,” he said.

The committee questioned the head of FEMA and other disaster-relief leaders about the speed of recovery and rebuilding efforts since Sandy, amid modest praise for the federal agency’s general handling of the disaster.

“It takes a lot of people,” FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate said of the lessons learned so far from the hurricane, which tore through the Northeast in late October, wreaking destruction up and down New Jersey’s celebrated coastline. It damaged parts of New York City and neighborhoods on Long Island and elsewhere. It also affected nearly a dozen other states.

State and local leaders, including Latham, were on hand Tuesday to recommend improvements to recovery efforts based on their experiences in previous natural disasters. Latham worked with FEMA in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when 82 Mississippi counties were declared disaster areas.

Fugate said the most immediate cost in a disaster was debris removal. He said FEMA began the fiscal year on Oct.1 with $7.1 billion for disaster relief and had $4.8 billion left, which should last until early spring.

Latham, meanwhile, told the committee in his written testimony that a disaster presents “a tremendous opportunity for a community to build back smarter, better, stronger, safer and more resilient.

“Long after the state and federal government is gone, local officials and citizens, as well as their private-sector partners, are left to continue to put their communities back together. Every decision made should be what’s best for that community, not what’s best for the state or federal government.”