FEMA’s Disaster Budget Becomes Political Issue

As Hurricane Irene slams into the East Coast, the federal disaster relief agency is dangerously low on cash. And politicians are already bickering about where to get new money.

Paul J. Richards / AFP-Getty Images

It’s been a busy year for America’s disaster agency, and that may soon spell disaster for its budget.

It started with severe winter storms in the east and southwest in January. Tsunami waves from the Japanese earthquake struck the West Coast and Hawaii in March, followed by the tornado that flattened parts of southern Missouri in May. Several Midwest states saw flooding earlier this month. And an earthquake and hurricane rocked the East Coast this week.

So far in 2011, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has responded to “major disasters” 65 times, among the highest in the agency’s history. The unprecedented demand has stretched the agency and its budget increasingly thin.

Craig Fugate, FEMA’s administrator, told White House reporters in May that the agency’s disaster relief fund was running low, then just above $1 billion. Without an infusion from Congress, he said, relief workers would only address immediate needs, like delivering food and water, instead of less immediate concerns like clearing felled trees and cleaning streets.

But just weeks before the worst of Hurricane Irene began to pelt Washington, D.C. and New York with heavy rain and wind, the agency’s disaster relief fund dropped below $1 billion—to $792 million—nearly the lowest the fund has ever been only eight months into the year. As a result, FEMA officials on Saturday implemented what’s known as "immediate needs funding guidance,” which allows the agency to divert funds from long-term repair and rebuilding projects so it can focus on response and recovery efforts from the hurricane.

FEMA spokesperson Rachel Racusen said that the agency had the funds to meet the immediate needs of disaster survivors. But, she said, "This strategy prioritizes the immediate, urgent needs of survivors and states when preparing for or responding to a disaster."

That means the agency may have to forego recovery projects that it normally does in states that turn to the agency for help. Previously, cash-strapped states have relied on FEMA to help rebuild schools, hospitals and other public infrastructure after major natural disasters. But with a bank balance of $792 million to respond to the areas affected by the hurricane, stretching from North Carolina up to New England, officials expect those funds to deplete quickly in the coming few days.

Getting the agency more money for both Irene and disasters through the rest of the year will require an act of Congress. But already the issue has become political, with the same fault lines forming as they did during the debt debate that paralyzed Washington last month.

Neither party has threatened to deny funds for areas and people in need, but House Republicans, including Majority Leader Eric Cantor, have vowed that any new funding for FEMA will have to come from money cut elsewhere from the federal budget.

“We’ve had discussions about these things before and [FEMA] monies will be offset with appropriate savings or cost-cutting elsewhere in order to meet the priority of the federal government’s role in a situation like this,” Cantor said at a news conference after last week’s earthquake. His district, just south of Washington DC was among the hardness hit by the trembler.

Democrats see the GOP trying to make disaster relief a political debate over what spending is needed and what isn’t and accused Republicans of setting up political arguments in the wake of a debilitating disaster.

“We should try to realistically budget for emergencies but millions of Americans will suffer if we artificially handcuff the government when it comes to disaster relief,” Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat whose district borders Washington, told Newsweek and The Daily Beast. “That’s a negligent approach to governing.”

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Brad Dayspring, a spokesman for Cantor, said that no request has yet been made for federal funding, and if money is needed Congress will respond appropriately.

Meanwhile, a group of senior Republicans have already placed the blame squarely on the White House and the Democratically controlled Senate.

Reps. Hal Rogers, (R-KY), Robert Aderholt (R-AL), and Jo Ann Emerson (R-MO), who all sit on the Appropriations Committee, released a statement Saturday morning when it started raining in Washington. The reason for FEMA’s money problem, they said, was that Democrats didn’t make the agency’s budget big enough to begin with.