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Interview with Representative Frank Pallone

By Rachel Maddow Show, Rachel Maddow Show - August 30, 2011

Guest Host: Melissa Harris-PerryGuests: Frank Pallone, Dean Baker, Kelly Hart

LAWRENCE O`DONELL, "THE LAST WORD" HOST: THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW is up next. And filling in again tonight, Melissa Harris-Perry.

Hi, Melissa.

MELISSA HARRIS-PERRY, GUEST HOST: Hi, Lawrence. Thanks.

And thanks to you at home for staying with us for the next hour. Rachel has the night off. And we`re going to be coming to you tonight live from the great city of New Orleans -- a city which at this moment is being physically consumed by this.

No, despite all the outward appearances, that is not, in fact, a haboob, although it`s sort of a New Orleans version of a haboob. That right there, that big, ominous-looking, grayish-brownish cloud, that`s the result of a giant marsh fire that`s been burning in east New Orleans for three days now.

It`s literally swampland that`s caught on fire and is blanketing the rest of the city in this lovely, choke-inducing, smoke-filled haze.

Now, if you have the fortune to be walking around New Orleans right now, this is what you`re breathing in, a thick smoky stew of chinaberry, peat moss and willow trees. Now, I know that sounds sort of organic, nice, maybe even Southern, but this big plume of smoke is actually a big old problem.

First off, it`s really dangerous for anyone who has serious breathing conditions. Those folks have been warned to stay inside. And second of all, officials here in Louisiana can`t quite figure out how to put the darn thing out.

Marsh fires are sort of a fact of life for people who live in marshy areas like New Orleans. I mean, they happen. The problem is that marshes, by their very nature, are sort of remote areas. They are difficult to get to. So, your options are limited when a fire breaks out there.

Now, here`s one option. This is called a marsh buggy. A marsh buggy is basically a big tractor-like vehicle that can maneuver in and around these hard to reach swamps. Some models have these long retractable arms that essentially turn over soil that`s burning and help stamp out the fire.

Louisiana, unfortunately, doesn`t own any marsh buggies. The Department of Agriculture wanted two of them. They requested two of them, but they were cut out of this year`s budget. The state just couldn`t afford them.

So, here`s another option, big airplanes that can fly over the fire and dump thousands of gallons of water on the flames to help put it out. The problem right now for residents of New Orleans as reported by WDSU, the local NBC affiliate down here, the New Orleans Fire Department said several airplanes would be need and they are costly. Big water-dumping airplanes are just too expensive. The state can`t afford it right now.

And so, welcome to New Orleans -- a city currently being strangled by a thick layer of smoke and ash that you can taste in the back of your throat. It`s not gumbo.

The National Guard has begun to send helicopters in, to dump small amount of water on the fire. But the real end game here was acknowledged by a state legislator today who represents New Orleans. Quote, "We`re going to reach out to the federal government to see if they can bring in assets."

States like Louisiana are so strapped for cash right now that a local emergency situation like this one in New Orleans, a marsh fire, may ultimately require federal help.

Here was a scene today in the state of Vermont. Hurricane Irene left in her wake the worst flooding in that state in nearly a century, and today officials began airlifting food and water to 13 towns in Vermont that were left unreachable by vehicle as a result of the flooding Irene left behind.

And like officials here in New Orleans, Vermont is also looking to the federal government for help. The head of FEMA, Craig Fugate, toured the damage by helicopter with Vermont`s governor today.

And here was the scene in the state of New York -- a handful of towns remain cut off tonight as a result of roads and bridges that had been flooded there by Irene. And today, that state`s governor, Andrew Cuomo, wrote personally to President Obama to ask for federal assistance to help clean up the mess.

Today, North Carolina`s governor, Bev Perdue, reported that hurricane Irene destroyed more than 1,000 homes in her state and caused at least $70 million worth of damage. Notably, she made that announcement while standing alongside Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, whose department oversees FEMA.

So, the federal government, in this case FEMA, is a lifeline for a number of these states right now. You as a state can`t predict when a disaster is going to strike. You can, of course, set aside money in a disaster fund.

But often the scale of the disaster is more than a state can handle. That`s where federal government comes in, what`s where FEMA comes in. And right now, as states all across the country attempt to pick up the pieces from a 2011 that has essentially been one disaster after another from wildfires out West, to floods and tornadoes in the heartland, to hurricanes on the East Coast -- right now, we learned that FEMA, the agency all of those states rely on, is running out of money. It has less than $1 billion left to help those states rebuild.

And why is FEMA all of a sudden broke? Well, in part, thank you, House Republicans.

The ongoing disputes over deficit reduction and spending cuts have threatened what is a routine annual exercise to replenish FEMA`s coffers.

As NPR noted today, quote, "In the past, emergency aid funds has been treated as, well, emergencies. No more says, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. ERIC CANTOR (R-VA), MAJORITY LEADER: In instances like this, yes, there`s a federal role, yes, we`re going to find the money. We`re just going to need to make sure that there are savings else where to continue to do so.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HARRIS-PERRY: As much of the East Coast sits paralyzed by hurricane Irene, house Republicans are now threatening no additional funding for FEMA unless more budget cuts are made else where. Sorry.

At this hour, mandatory evacuation order is in effect for the town of Wallington, New Jersey. A town councilman there said that the town, quote, "looks like a third world country."

Now, Wallington sits alongside the flooded Passaic River which is due to crest tonight between 10:00 p.m. and midnight. Four thousand residents in nearby Paterson, New Jersey, have been ordered to leave in what`s being called tonight as an unprecedented evacuation.

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