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Gov. Perry taps Williams to head long-term hurricane relief efforts

By Jennifer Bendery,

Austin, TX –

With Texas stepping up its efforts to serve as many as 373,000 displaced New Orleans residents in need of housing, unemployment benefits and public school placements for children, Gov. Rick Perry today named Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams to lead the state's long-term hurricane relief plan to help evacuees rebuild their lives.

Williams, a former official at the U.S. Department of Education and at the U.S. Treasury, will serve as a liaison between local, state and federal officials to ensure that evacuees find more permanent housing and jobs. As Texas transitions from immediate response to long-term planning, Williams' primary goal will be to help evacuees either return to their hometowns or become contributing members of Texas communities, said Perry.

The governor said Williams is "perfectly suited for this great challenge" because of his "tremendous experience" in state government, as well as his previous work with the business community and numerous charitable endeavors.

"Hurricane Katrina may have exposed the frailty of the human condition, but the people of Texas have shown the world the vigor of the human spirit," Perry said. "Commissioner Williams' leadership will allow Texas to further our mission of compassion and help evacuees take the next step on the road to recovery."

He said Texas already has helped thousands of hurricane evacuees to secure federal housing, transportation, medical and unemployment benefits, and local school districts have enrolled more than 30,000 children in public schools. "In every corner of this state, we have witnessed an unprecedented display of compassion," he said.

Perry noted that Hurricane Katrina has presented unique challenges for Texas that require a unique, long-term response. "We must all recognize that America has never faced a natural disaster of this magnitude," he said. "Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of lives have been lost and an entire city virtually destroyed. More than a million Americans have been displaced, and unlike most other tragedies, there is no certainty as to when their communities will be re-established, their homes rebuilt or their lives restored."

Williams commended Texas business leaders, mayors, non-profit organizations, educators and people of faith for helping hurricane evacuees to rebuild their lives by "filling their closets and pantries, locating housing, giving cash, providing jobs, offering seats in our schools, and making room on the pew at church." He said he is committed to making the transition to long-term placements "as smooth and efficient as possible."

While the total cost to Texas to deliver services to evacuees is unclear, Perry said anyone engaged in the relief efforts "has appropriate concern" about absorbing huge numbers of people on the state's Medicaid rolls and within public schools. Working with federal counterparts will be key to ensuring that adequate funds are channeled to the state, he said. Still, the issue is not how much money comes to the state but how that money is spent, said Perry.

When asked about his meeting with U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt regarding reimbursements for services to evacuees, Perry said they had "a good meeting" but he is still "not ready to sign off" on an agreement. But there has been "100 percent agreement" with regard to the federal match rate for Medicaid spending, he said. "That's the big one."

It is "too early" to begin talking about how much it will cost the public for the hurricane relief efforts, said Perry. Between voluntary hours and goods provided, there have been "lots of estimates missed in this process already," he said.

The governor said he isn't worried about a decline in support for hurricane victims once newspaper headlines fade on the disaster. "This isn't about needing a cheering section every day to go out and do work," he said. "I fully expect state agencies and faith-based organizations" to maintain efforts to support the displaced residents. "They do this every day," said Perry.

An official from the Texas Department of Homeland Security said there are an estimated 19,500 evacuees in shelters and 140,000 registered heads of household in Texas. There could be as many as 373,000 evacuees in the state, he said, but it's too early to tell if this number is accurate.

Addressing a non-related issue, the recent audit review of the Comptroller of Public Accounts that the comptroller said gave her agency "a clean bill of health," Perry said that "any citizen can come away with great concern" that campaign contributions were given in exchange for tax decisions. The audit called for "substantial legislative changes" at the agency, he noted. The "clear connection" between campaign contributions and tax decisions is "very troubling. Very troubling," said Perry. State Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, a fellow Republican, is challenging Perry in the 2006 gubernatorial race.

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