While Congress is facing several unresolved issues in a potentially busy post-election lame-duck session, finding additional disaster relief money for Hurricane Sandy likely won’t be on the list, as FEMA and lawmakers say available funds should be sufficient.
Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator W. Craig Fugate told reporters Tuesday he has $3.6 billion in disaster-relief funding immediately at his disposal that will “provide all of the funds we need for the response, as well as continuing recovery for all of our previous open disasters.”
And congressional appropriators said Wednesday they’ve gotten no signals from the agency that more relief appropriations will be needed in the near future.
“A supplemental (funding measure) is not on our radar at this point,” a senior House Appropriations Committee aide said.
The situation is a sharp contrast from recent years. After Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc on the Gulf Coast in 2005, Congress approved two emergency supplemental spending bills, which together provided $62.3 billion for emergency response and recovery needs. Both measures were enacted less than two weeks after the storm hit.
Congress later approved a third emergency supplemental funding request that included $19.3 billion for disaster-recovery assistance for Katrina-related damages as well as for other disasters.
And FEMA’s disaster-relief fund was stretched to the limit last year owing to a slew of natural disasters, including flooding along the Mississippi River, a rash of tornadoes in the South and Missouri, wildfires in Texas and an earthquake in the mid-Atlantic states. By the time Hurricane Irene ripped through the East Coast and New England in late summer 2011, the agency’s emergency funds were running low.
During 2011’s busy storm season, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican, caused a stir when he suggested Congress withhold requests for supplemental disaster relief money unless the money was offset elsewhere.
A Cantor spokesman this week said the majority leader has never suggested that victims of natural disasters be deprived of needed help.
“One of the reasons House Republicans insisted on reforming the disaster funding process … was so that we would have a separate dedicated pot of money available based on historical disaster needs,” said Cantor spokesman Rory Cooper. “We also provided that should a disaster exceed that capacity, Congress and the president could provide additional emergency funds.”
But the agency’s disaster-relief coffers are now in much better shape, as Congress in September added to the fund at an annual rate of $7.1 billion for fiscal year 2013, which began Oct. 1. Since lawmakers only passed a six-month “continuing resolution” instead of a full one-year budget, FEMA technically was allocated half that amount, though the agency has relatively easy access to the rest.
An additional $1 billion in unused disaster-relief money also rolled over into this year’s account owing to fewer major natural disasters during the 12-month fiscal year that ended after September, he said.
“The [disaster-relief fund] has sufficient cash in the short term,” a senior aide with the Senate Appropriations Committee said.
As millions of Americans still are coping with Sandy’s aftermath, no reliable damage estimates are available. But should it become apparent in the coming weeks that FEMA will deplete its disaster-relief money, Congress will have the opportunity to allocate more during its lame-duck session scheduled to begin a week after Tuesday’s elections.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, Kentucky Republican, also has said he is committed to extending the six-month continuing resolution to a full year as soon as possible, the senior House committee aide said.
Meanwhile, New Jersey’s two senators — Democrats Frank R. Lautenberg and Robert Menendez — on Wednesday asked President Obama to increase the federal share for disaster response aid from the standard 75 percent to 90 percent to 100 percent, owing to the storm’s devastating effect on the state.
New Jersey communities are still rebuilding from last year’s devastating Hurricane Irene, and could use the extra federal help, said the senators in a letter to the president.
The senators added there has been precedent for such action, saying that since 1986 more than 200 adjustments to the federal cost-share have been authorized, including during Hurricanes Ike, Gustav, Wilma, Katrina, and Rita.