THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary (Little Rock, Arkansas)
REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT ON FEDERAL DISASTER EFFORTS
Downtown Arkadelphia Arkadelphia, Arkansas
2:35 P.M. CST
THE PRESIDENT: Ladies and gentlemen, first let me say that I very much appreciate the work that has been done here. I know this has been a very difficult thing, but I've been so impressed by the local officials, the volunteers, the police and fire personnel, the Army Reserve, the other military people. You've got a lot to be proud of.
I want to thank Governor Huckabee -- and I see Mrs. Huckabee over there in a Red Cross jacket -- for what they have done; and Congressman Jay Dickey, who came down with me today. I want to thank all the Arkansans for a part of our operation -- in addition to James Lee Witt, I know that Mack McLarty and Bruce Lindsey and Craig Smith came down with me today. And we have a lot of people here representing our various agencies. Rodney Slater, who has been here since Sunday -- and as I was walking up and down the streets, I heard several people say, well, I don't want you to fix my building, but I would like a new road in some place in Clark County. (Laughter.) So we'll do our best to behave on that.
I also have the new Director of the Small Business Administration here -- Aida Alvarez -- who served in the Housing and Urban Development Department with me. And we're going to be working with Judge Runyan and Mayor Kolb and Senator Ross and Representative Malone and all the other local leaders here to try to help you get back on track.
You know, James Lee said this, but when I became President one of the things that I wanted to do, and I never thought my native state would need it, but I wanted to make sure that when disaster strikes anywhere in America, the United States government would do its part and will be there promptly and would stay for the long haul, and would be concerned and be able to deal with problems that may look small in Washington, but are as big as anything in life to people who face them when a disaster strikes.
And I can't say enough about the work he's done. But I have to tell you, you know -- he mentioned this -- we've seen 500-year floods in the middle west like nothing I'd ever seen. We've seen flooding in the southeast. We've worked on the aftermath of hurricane in Florida. We saw the Pacific Northwest washed out. We've seen fires and floods and earthquakes in California. But nothing has quite affected me the way this has today, and I think it's because I've been coming to Arkadelphia for more than 40 years.
We flew over College Station in Saline County coming down here, and I spent an enormous amount of time in those places when I was Governor. And I look into the eyes of so many people here today and I wish there were more I could say and do. But I can tell you this: I'll make you a little prediction, within two years what we're looking at today will look better than it did before the storm hit because of all of you and we're going to do what we can to help you. (Applause.)
Let me just go over some details here. I've got a few notes -- everybody makes fun, when I was Governor I never used notes, but now my memory is failing me so I need notes. (Laughter.) The disaster declaration I signed on Sunday provides for emergency aid, temporary housing, grants and low interest loans. FEMA has set up an 800 number and the people that are eligible for financial help will be getting it beginning just in the next couple of days. I think that since James Lee's been here we've turned these checks around pretty quick. So I think there shouldn't be people in too much of a tight -- within a matter of just a few days.
The Department of Defense is already helping, as all of you know, in clearing debris. The SBA can provide long-term, low interest loans, I know for a lot of small business people that seems like a losing proposition now, but I think if you look at the terms you will find them very helpful. I also know that the local banks here have gone out of their way to try to be helpful already and have sent very positive signals out in this community.
Let me just mention two other things, mostly for other parts of the state -- today we're making farmers also eligible in the affected counties for emergency low interest loans. And as I told the Governor coming down, the Labor Department will be providing some funds to the state which will enable people who have lost their jobs temporarily or, I hope not, but if it should happen, permanently because of this tornado, to be hired to help and be part of the clean-up so their families won't be without an income and so we can speed up the clean-up. And I hope that will be helpful.
The third thing I'd like to say is that we're looking here at a long-term process. I am, I must say, terrifically impressed with all the folks I've seen out here cleaning up -- all the people from the utilities and the contractors and the football teams. I was walking down the street, I said, I believe there's more brawn per square inch in this town today than any other place in America. We've got more physical strength here, and I've been very impressed.
But you look around at this destruction, it's going to be a long-term rebuilding process, not only for the individuals who lost their businesses, but for this community. And a lot of thought has to go into this. Each and every person who lost a business will have to decide, well, what am I going to do, am I going to rebuild here or not. Or, if I'm going to rebuild, am I going to do it somewhere else? And the county has to decide what to do about the courthouse site. A lot of decisions have to be made.
And we have decided that what we should to is to put together a task force, representing all the different departments in the federal government that could be of any help, that will be able to work with you over the long run. I don't want you to think that the federal government comes down here, there's an emergency, sends out a few checks, and then we walk away. So we're going to set up a long-term task force. We will be with you all the way. And again I will say, I predict that within a couple of years, Arkadelphia will be back stronger than ever and you will like what you see here. You will have to plan your own future. You will have to execute it. But we want to stay with you.
Let me also tell you that these storm centers -- and you already know this, but I have to say this to people in other states who've been afflicted -- if you've been looking at the television you have seen people literally buried in avalanches of water in Ohio, in Kentucky, and in West Virginia. Today, I'm declaring a major disaster in Kentucky and Ohio because of the floods that are there, and we will begin to immediately help them. The Vice President and Mr. Witt are going to go to those two states tomorrow to view the damage and to report back to me.
The final thing I'd like to say is that when I heard about this, the first thing that struck me was not only the physical devastation, but that the number of people who died here in the space of about 18 hours are equal -- almost equal to the number of people who died from tornadoes in the entire 12 years that I had the honor of being Governor of Arkansas. And so Hillary and I said a prayer for those people and their families, and I would just like to ask that all the rest of us who were unscathed by this keep those folks in mind, as well as those who were injured, and those who lost everything they had. They're all going to need our help.
There are people here who have come from other states already to help. And if we keep the right spirit and all of you keep the light in your eyes that I saw today when person after person after person said, well, we'll get over this, this is Arkansas, we now how to behave, we know what to do -- you do know what to do, and I'll be honored to help you every step of the way. And I thank you for giving me the chance to share this with you today. As difficult as it is, I very much wanted to be here and I'm glad I came. Thank you. (Applause.)
Q Mr. President, a couple of questions on other topics. One question, apparently there is some effort on the Hill to get the legislation -- Trent Lott and others have called for an independent counsel. Is that appropriate at this time?
THE PRESIDENT: It's a legal question.
Q Okay, one other question --
THE PRESIDENT: I have nothing else to say.
Q Did the White House ever get a heads up from DOJ or from the FBI on the Chinese --
THE PRESIDENT: I want to refer -- ask them. Ask the White House. They're the appropriate person you're supposed to ask.
Q Did you?
THE PRESIDENT: No.
END 2:44 P.M. CST