It makes no sense to spend billions of dollars to rebuild a city that's seven feet under sea level, House Speaker Dennis Hastert said of federal assistance for hurricane-devastated New Orleans.
Democratic lawmakers from Louisiana were quick to disagree Thursday and Hastert sought to clarify the comment during the day.
"It looks like a lot of that place could be bulldozed," the Illinois Republican said in an interview about New Orleans Wednesday with the Daily Herald of Arlington Heights, Illinois.
Louisiana Rep. Charlie Melancon called the comments irresponsible and Sen. Mary L. Landrieu urged Hastert to focus on the humanitarian crisis at hand, the AP says.
Hastert, in a transcript supplied by the suburban Chicago newspaper, said there was no question that the people of New Orleans would rebuild their city, but noted that federal insurance and other federal aid was involved. "We ought to take a second look at it. But you know we build Los Angeles and San Francisco on top of earthquake fissures and they rebuild too. Stubbornness."
There are "some real tough questions to ask," Hastert said in the interview. "How do you go about rebuilding this city? What precautions do you take?"
Asked in the interview whether it made sense to spend billions rebuilding a city that lies below sea level, he replied, "I don't know. That doesn't make sense to me."
Hastert later issued a statement saying he was not "advocating that the city be abandoned or relocated."
"My 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," the statement said.
Still, an angry Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco demanded an immediate apology from Hastert.
"To kick us when we're down and destroy hope, when hope is the only thing we have left, is absolutely unthinkable for a leader in his position," Blanco said in a Thursday night news conference.
Landrieu issued a statement earlier Thursday sayings Hastert's question on how to rebuild can be debated later but that right now the focus must be on stabilizing the situation in the state.