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Multiple disasters put FEMA in a funding bind

Appropriations bill stalled in Congress

- The Washington Times - Monday, August 29, 2011

The Obama administration is giving itself high marks for its emergency response to Hurricane Irene, except for one problem — the government's disaster fund is going broke.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency invoked its "immediate needs" funding provision over the weekend, redirecting money for hurricane cleanup on the East Coast at the expense of other regions hit by natural disasters such as tornadoes. And that has lawmakers from Missouri, where tornadoes ravaged the town of Joplin in May, fuming.

"Recovery from hurricane damage on the East Coast must not come at the expense of Missouri's rebuilding efforts," said Sen. Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican, in a statement Monday. "If FEMA can't fulfill its promise to our state because we have other disasters, that's unacceptable, and we need to take a serious look at how our disaster response policies are funded and implemented."

Said Sen. Claire McCaskill, Missouri Democrat, "FEMA should be prepared for all types of disasters and have the resources to respond rapidly and stay until the work is done, and until the community is made whole again."

FEMA director Craig Fugate said the agency made the funding decision Saturday when its disaster relief fund dipped below $1 billion.

"The only thing that we have postponed is new projects that are permanent work that had not been started when we go into immediate needs funding," Mr. Fugate said. "We weren't out of money, but we wanted to make sure we had enough money available to continue supporting the survivors from the past disasters, as well as start the response to Irene."

The funding crisis hasn't seemed to rattle President Obama, who has missed few opportunities during Hurricane Irene to show the public he is in charge and monitoring the federal response carefully. It's an obvious contrast to the administration of President George W. Bush, who was widely criticized for FEMA's slow response to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast six years ago.

But some lawmakers say FEMA is tapped out from a series of natural disasters this year, and they blame the Obama administration for not taking the lead in resolving a funding dispute between Senate Democrats and House Republicans.

Three months ago, the House approved a new Homeland Security appropriations bill with $2.65 billion for FEMA's disaster relief fund in fiscal 2012, and another $1 billion for fiscal 2011. But Senate Democrats haven't passed the measure, balking at the House GOP's requirement that cuts be made elsewhere in the budget.

Rep. Harold Rogers, Kentucky Republican and House Appropriations Committee chairman, said the administration repeatedly has ignored his calls since January to end the impasse. Lawmakers have been warning for months that FEMA was facing a shortfall, but the White House has declined to request more emergency funding for the agency.

"Time and time again, the administration has ignored the obvious funding needs of the Disaster Relief Fund, purposefully and irresponsibly underfunding the account and putting families and communities who have suffered from terrible disasters on the back burner," Mr. Rogers said in a statement.

The top Democrats on the Homeland Security subcommittee of their chamber's Appropriations panel, Sens. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, said Monday that the stalled bill will be their first priority when they return to work in next week.

"The American people deserve to know that critical assistance won't be held up by petty political squabbles in Washington," Mrs. Landrieu said in a statement.

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