House Speaker Says 'Safety First' in Rebuilding New Orleans

By Susan Jones | July 7, 2008 | 8:22 PM EDT

( - Should New Orleans be rebuilt the way it was? House Speaker Dennis Hastert took some political heat on Thursday, for asking that question.

In an interview with the Daily Herald published on Thursday, Hastert said, "It doesn't make sense to me" to spend billions of federal dollars on rebuilding a city that remains vulnerable to disaster. Hastert told the suburban Chicago newspaper, "certainly we should ask" questions about doing such a thing.

After the comments were widely circulated by Democrats on Capitol Hill, Hastert released a statement Thursday afternoon, clarifying what he'd said:

"It is important that when we rebuild this historic city that we consider the safety of the citizens first. I am not advocating that the city be abandoned or relocated," Hastert said.

"My [earlier] comments about rebuilding the city were intended to reflect my sincere concern with how the city is rebuilt to ensure the future protection of its citizens and not to suggest that this great and historic city should not be rebuilt."

Before clarifying his stance on rebuilding New Orleans, Hastert was questioned on Thursday by reporters in his home state.

According to a transcript from WSPY-AM in Plano, Ill., Hastert expressed concern about putting half-a-million people in homes that are seven feet under sea level without building double or triple levees.

"So, I think any future rebuilding of New Orleans really needs to be carefully re-thought -- how we do it; how we put people's lives in danger," Hastert said.

"Right now we're concerned about getting people out of the roofs and out of the attics and saving lives, but when all the things settle down and when the waters go down, and we think about putting huge federal funds into rebuilding New Orleans. I think we ought to rethink how we're doing that and how we put people's lives in jeopardy again."

Hastert said if the city is rebuilt, "if we're going to put people at risk, we need to make sure it's safe." He said safety concerns may result in a "smaller New Orleans when we get done. I don't know," he mused.

"But we need to put a lot of thought and a lot of time in, before we invest a lot of dollars, and so we do it right."

Louisiana Democrats issued statements expressing disappointment with Hastert's comments:

"While I disagree strongly with Speaker Hastert's comments regarding the city of New Orleans, he raises a debate that we can address at some time in the future. Right now, however, we have important work to do," said Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.).

Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-La.), whose district includes New Orleans, said, "Comments like this one are an example of why our fight to address Louisiana's coastal issues has been so difficult."

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