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$19 Billion Deal Reached In Senate For Disaster Aid


It has taken months, but the Senate has finally approved relief money for people in areas of the country hit hard by natural disasters. Yesterday, the Senate passed a $19 billion disaster assistance package. There is money for hurricane recovery in Puerto Rico, for California to rebuild after wildfires and for several states that have had floods and tornadoes.

Now, the destructive weather has kept up this spring in places like Oklahoma. In Tulsa, flood sirens along the Arkansas River sounded every 30 minutes last night.

Here's Joe Kralicek, director of the Tulsa Area Management Agency.


JOE KRALICEK: That water will rise. If you're in a low-lying area and you know you're going to probably have to take water and get out, you should probably begin planning now to get out.

KING: Senator James Lankford is on the line with me now. He's a Republican from Oklahoma.

Good morning, Senator.

JAMES LANKFORD: Good morning to you.

KING: Senator, you are back in Oklahoma now. Where are you exactly, and how bad is the damage?

LANKFORD: I am actually at Keystone Dam currently. This morning, we were here before dawn to be able to go through what's happening and the water release. The Corps of Engineers manages this property, and they're trying to manage the amount of water coming downstream. We just had a tremendous amount of water.

We're releasing about 250,000 cubic feet per second at this point, out of this dam, to try to manage it. But there's about 320,000 that's coming into it. And so it is trying to be able to manage the flooding downstream.

KING: All right. So you've got parts of the state that are flooded. You've also had several tornadoes earlier this week as well. How long have you been waiting for aid?

LANKFORD: So for us - days. This is very different than what it's been from some of the hurricanes that were more than 200 days ago.

KING: Yeah.

LANKFORD: This very long disaster aid package - typically, there's a response in the disaster as we've done with - what's happening in Oklahoma right now. That turned around very quickly. But because it's been more than 200 days resolving what was happening in California, Georgia, Florida - so many different areas that this has been an ongoing debate.

But it is finally getting out and getting to place. There'll be states like Missouri and Oklahoma that have had tornadoes recently, and we'll be able to have a rapid response.

KING: When we talk about rapid response, I wonder - the Senate has passed this bill. Have you been given any idea of when your constituents can expect to get federal help? And what that federal help will look like?

LANKFORD: So it's varied - there are both agricultural assistance for fields that have been lost, orchards that have been lost through severe damage to storms. There's also provisions for volcanoes in Hawaii. There is provisions for what's called Community Development Block Grants for individual communities, for the various projects - transportation projects. All of those will take a little bit of time. They'll make requests, and then those requests will start getting filled. So it'll be several weeks before it's actually to them.

KING: And when you talk to your constituents, can they hang on for that long?

LANKFORD: Well, it depends. When you're dealing with agricultural folks in Georgia and Florida, they've been waiting a very long time. They've been very, very frustrated through this process.

For FEMA individuals - that actually apply as an individual on the FEMA - that assistance has been done a long time ago. That's a very rapid turnaround. These are larger programs that cover different things that exceed beyond the normal FEMA program.

KING: The House of Representatives is expected to approve this bill and could vote as early as later today. I wonder if you are certain that the president will sign it because he said he will, but the bill doesn't include funding that he has demanded for a border wall, which has been a real sticking point.

LANKFORD: Actually, the funding he's demanded is dealing with humanitarian aid at the border at this point. I am confident that he is going to sign it. But there is a real problem with HHS in trying to be able to manage tens of thousands of individuals coming across that border - just getting basic humanitarian aid, taking care of hospital runs. So many things that they're doing.

We have individual border agents - that they are personally buying diapers for children. They're personally bringing clothes from their own kids to be able to take care of some of the kids that are in right now because there's just not enough federal assistance. And by the middle of June, they will run out completely. So we have got to make sure we replenish that.

This has nothing to do with a wall or fencing. This has everything to do with basic humanitarian aid for those folks that are coming across.

KING: So you're confident that the president will sign.

LANKFORD: I am confident that he will sign it.

KING: Farmers in your state, as you mentioned, have had a tough year. It's not just floods and tornadoes, there are also tariffs as a result of the trade war. Yesterday, the president announced another round of bailout or aid payments to farmers who have been hit hard by the trade war with China.

I wonder, Senator, what do you think about that policy of giving money to farmers who've been hurt in this ongoing fight?

LANKFORD: Yeah. Most of our farmers don't want a federal aid package, they want trade. They want the opportunity to be able to sell products anywhere they can, worldwide. Our ag folks are very involved in trade all around the world - in wheats and cotton and beef, pork and so many other things that we produce - soybeans. So they want open markets, and they want to be able to sell. And they want some predictability - long-term.

Now, they definitely understand the problems with China. This has been an ongoing issue for decades and decades and with a tremendous amount of unpredictability. But this is something that they hope can be resolved as soon as possible, so they can get back to just normal buying and selling.

KING: And what are farmers in your state telling you about what they need? I mean, you're a big exporter. Oklahoma is a big exporter to China of meat, soybeans, grain. In addition to just getting this wrapped up quickly, what else do folks there need?

LANKFORD: So the two things that are immediate for us is, obviously, wrapping up the USMCA, that's our revision of NAFTA. They're really looking for that to get on the House floor and to be able to get that vote done and so they can get some predictability in their trade with Canada, Mexico. For Oklahoma, our top two export locations are Canada and Mexico. Then after that, it starts going to Japan and China and other places. So it is important that we get these trade deals done, starting with the USMCA. And that's the first one that they're looking to get done.

KING: Senator James Lankford, Republican of Oklahoma. Thank you so much for joining us.

LANKFORD: Very glad to join you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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