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Administration to Ask $2 Billion More Quake Aid

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Clinton Administration will ask Congress today for about $2 billion more in federal earthquake relief than it had previously announced--which would make the disaster-assistance package for the Northridge quake the costliest in U.S. history if approved, administration officials said Monday.

Citing still-rising damage estimates, a flood of relief applicants and the impact of serious aftershocks, the Administration is boosting its request for housing grants, small business loans and other federal aid to $8.6 billion. In addition, nearly $900 million in federal funds has already been committed to the quake-ravaged region.

“We’re finding more and more damage,” Richard Krim, the associate director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, told a House subcommittee Monday. “You look at a building, it looks OK from the outside, then you go in and start seeing cracks.”

The President was to send the expanded aid proposal to Capitol Hill this morning. The House Appropriations Committee was scheduled to begin legislative consideration today.

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The new request includes another $1.2 billion for FEMA, which coordinates government response to disasters and administers emergency aid. About two-thirds of the funds will be earmarked for housing assistance and social services for those whose homes were damaged or destroyed by the Jan. 17 Northridge quake. Most of the remainder would be used to make schools and other public buildings less prone to damage in future earthquakes.

Another $550 million will be added in Small Business Administration disaster assistance loans for businesses and homeowners, nearly doubling the $559 million originally sought.

The aid bill will also include an increase of $50 million to $100 million in housing vouchers for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, nearly $50 million in new funds for the Veterans Administration to repair the damaged V.A. Medical Center in North Hills and $100 million for a presidential contingency fund to be spent on quake-related costs as necessary.

With the additional funds, the quake relief measure would surpass record sums spent by the federal government on other large-scale disasters. A total of $8.5 billion has been spent on a joint aid package to repair damage caused by Hurricanes Andrew in Florida and Iniki in Hawaii and Typhoon Omar in Guam, all of which struck in 1992. About $4.7 billion has been channeled to the Midwestern communities devastated by last year’s floods.

The magnitude 6.6 pre-dawn temblor killed at least 57 people and inflicted extensive damage on homes, freeways, businesses and public structures. A 5.0 aftershock on Jan. 29 caused further losses.

“Much of the country fails to realize that not only was this a severe earthquake but it was right in the middle of a major urbanized area,” said a senior Administration official. “The damage to homes is largely uninsured and the damage to infrastructure far exceeds what one would expect from a hurricane.”

Officials said that, while the increased aid package may raise objections from some lawmakers, the Administration remains hopeful that the emergency assistance bill will still command broad support.

“If members of Congress study the justifications we provide, there should be no serious problem,” the senior aide said. “People generally seem to respect the principle of treating these victims the way we’ve treated victims of previous disasters.”

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The Administration has received more than 215,000 requests for housing and other individual assistance at disaster centers throughout the earthquake area and projections indicate that figure could go as high as 500,000.

The Small Business Administration reports that it is receiving 1,000 applications daily and expects the tally to exceed 200,000. In comparison, the agency received 110,000 applications in the wake of Hurricane Andrew and 90,000 after the floods.

The official did not rule out future aid but said that the latest figures include “both the damage we know and our projections of what we may discover. The aftershocks make it a moving target.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said that the larger aid package indicates that the Administration is demonstrating “good faith” in its vow to seek more funds if more damage is documented. She said that the total could yet rise.

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“If the numbers justify it, it will go higher,” she predicted. “The numbers seem to be documenting these increases.”

The full House is expected to consider the earthquake bill Thursday. Senate action will follow. Proponents aim to have the measure on President Clinton’s desk by the time Congress adjourns for a week on Feb. 11.

The earthquake relief proposal is not expected to prompt significant opposition, said Administration and congressional sources. Rather, the biggest battles are expected over conservative efforts to force budget cuts elsewhere to pay for assistance and initiatives to prohibit aid from going to illegal residents.

An aide to Rep. Ron Packard (R-Oceanside) said Monday that the lawmaker plans to introduce an amendment to the relief package today that would restrict funds in the bill to citizens and legal residents of the United States. She said this would apply to direct assistance, such as SBA loans or housing vouchers, but would exclude emergency medical care or food.

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“He feels that by reimbursing these people, we’re rewarding illegal behavior,” the aide said. She added that Packard plans to introduce similar amendments to every spending measure that Congress considers this year.


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