- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 1, 2011

As if the Federal Emergency Management Agency didn’t have enough to worry about dealing with this spring’s deadly natural disasters, Wednesday marked the official beginning of an Atlantic hurricane season forecasters say will be busier than normal.

FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate says his agency is prepared to handle whatever Mother Nature dishes out this spring and summer and that he should have enough disaster relief money.

“I think for response we’re in good shape,” he told Fox News on Wednesday.

But Mr. Fugate said that with his agency still dealing with more than two dozen presidentially declared disasters and emergencies - ranging from tornadoes in the South and Midwest to fires in Texas and flooding in the Mississippi River Valley - it’s difficult to estimate an overall price tag.

“It’s really going to come back to rebuilding from the older disasters as well as any new disasters,” he said. “We’re still in response mode in many of these areas, so until we get those dollar figures, we’re staying focused on the initial response.”

As of last week, FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund had a balance of about $2.4 billion for the rest of fiscal year 2011, which runs through September.

Congress had appropriated about $2.7 billion for the fund for the year, but with unused money from 2010 and money freed up from prior years the agency had about $4.1 billion in disaster relief money at its disposal this year.

Even before the recent rash of natural disasters, FEMA estimated a $3 billion shortfall for next year unless Congress increased the $1.8 billion that President Obama requested for disaster relief for fiscal year 2012.

The House Appropriations Committee last week proposed $1 billion in additional emergency disaster relief money to ensure the fund doesn’t run dry.

The extra money would be offset by rescinding a $1.5 billion Energy Department program to encourage the production of fuel-efficient vehicles. The full House and Senate must approve the emergency package before the money can be allocated to the fund.

The House action has spurred a debate on Capitol Hill on whether emergency spending bills should be paid for with cuts elsewhere.

Many Republicans support such offsets, saying they are needed to rein in government spending. Democrats counter that attaching potentially controversial spending cuts to emergency disaster spending bills could delay or deny funds to natural disaster victims.

“The real issue regarding emergency spending is whether there’s an emergency, and I think that’s a legitimate debate to have where some things have been designated emergencies which one could argue were not emergencies,” House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, told reporters Tuesday.

Mr. Hoyer said insisting that spending offsets for legitimate emergencies such as last week’s devastating tornadoes in Joplin, Mp., would be wrong.

Meanwhile, Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations homeland security subcommittee, has pressed Mr. Obama for months for an emergency FEMA spending bill.

In a “Dear Colleague” letter last week, the Louisiana Democrat called on the chamber to urge Mr. Obama to beef up the disaster relief fund before the fiscal year runs out.

Out of $131 billion that Congress appropriated for the Disaster Relief Program in the past 20 years, $110 billion was approved as emergency spending, a Landrieu aide said.

Federal forecasters estimate the Atlantic Basin will have 12 to 18 named storms of winds of 39 mph or higher for the six-month season. Three to six are predicted to become major Category 3, 4 or 5 hurricanes with winds 111 mph or higher.

• Sean Lengell can be reached at slengell@washingtontimes.com.

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