WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate on Thursday approved President George W. Bush's request for $10.5 billion in emergency disaster relief for the victims of Hurricane Katrina, with billions more in aid seen passing Congress in coming weeks.
The U.S. House of Representatives is expected to pass an identical measure on Friday before sending it to Bush for his signature.
Bush called the hurricane that has killed at least hundreds in Mississippi and Louisiana, flooded much of New Orleans and interrupted oil refining on the Gulf Coast "one of the worst natural disasters in our country's history."
In a letter to Congress asking for the $10.5 billion, Bush said, "I anticipate making a further request in the coming weeks" for additional money.
The Senate approved the $10.5-billion bill with only four of the chamber's 100 senators present. Congress was winding up a month-long summer break when House and Senate leaders decided to reconvene to deal with the emergency.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, said Thursday's emergency session was hastily convened because people on the Gulf Coast "are still stranded and are reaching their breaking point."
"We are committed to providing all of the relief and support necessary to get through this terrible and ongoing crisis," Frist said.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada, said it was "unacceptable" that families in New Orleans lacked water and medicine and that violence had hampered evacuation efforts.
"We must find ways to get them the resources they need and bring them to safety," Reid said. He urged Republicans and Democrats to deliver aid in a bipartisan manner.
Louisiana's two senators, Democrat Mary Landrieu and Republican David Vitter, hailed the Senate action as an important start to the federal support that will be needed on the road to recovery.
"We need all the federal help that we can get to rebuild the city of New Orleans and our coastal communities," Vitter said.
The $10.5 billion is expected to last for about three weeks and mostly will be funneled to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which heads the disaster relief effort in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.
SEVERAL BILLION SPENT
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff estimated that the federal government already has spent "over a couple of billion" dollars since Katrina hit New Orleans on Monday.
That rate of spending has outpaced earlier estimates, causing Bush to request immediate congressional passage of the $10.5 billion.
The hurricane has left 80 percent of New Orleans under water and tens of thousands without housing. As conditions worsened over the past two days, there has been widespread looting and fears that thousands may have been killed by floodwaters and failing medical care.
Under the legislation, FEMA would control $10 billion of the new funds and the Pentagon would receive $500 million for evacuation efforts, National Guard deployments and other emergency relief.
Senate aides said there could be two more emergency spending bills, once there is a better assessment of needs. While they did not estimate the size of those measures, some disaster relief experts say $20 billion to $30 billion could be required.
The Gulf Coast rebuilding effort will be extensive, according to congressional appropriators, with funds needed to rebuild highways, government offices, military bases, water and electric systems, wildlife refuges and other facilities. Thousands of homeless people need food, shelter and water, possibly over an extended period.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, caused a stir with remarks published on Thursday in the Daily Herald, a Chicago-area newspaper, that questioned the wisdom of spending federal dollars to rebuild New Orleans.
"It doesn't make sense to me," the newspaper quoted Hastert saying of reconstruction of the below-sea level city that is exposed to violent Gulf of Mexico weather.
A spokesman, Ron Bonjean, later said Hastert was merely suggesting New Orleans should be rebuilt with the safety of its citizens in mind.
(Additional reporting by Adam Entous, Vicki Allen, Caren Bohan and Donna Smith)
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