After String Of Disasters, FEMA Fund Gets A Boost

May 25, 2011

Brian Naylor

Mario Tama
Kimmy Lankford walks with her son Jack, 5, during a walk through their neighborhood Wednesday after a massive tornado passed through the town. The Lankfords continue to live in their home a few blocks away, which was damaged but remains habitable.

This spring, tornadoes in the Midwest and the Southeast, and flooding along the Mississippi River are adding up to major expenses for the federal government, which is asked to provide emergency aid to states and localities.

On Tuesday, a House panel voted to put another $1 billion into a disaster assistance fund — and that may be just the start.

An Emergency Infusion Of Cash, Again

As rescuers continue their search for survivors, a different kind of accounting is going on in Washington.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is pumping out millions of dollars in emergency assistance — nearly $150 million for individuals in storm-ravaged communities so far this year, officials say. State requests are still pending.

FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate, interviewed in Joplin, Mo., Tuesday on CNN, said the money will continue to flow.

"The cost of these disasters will continue to mount," he said, "but our primary focus right now is supporting the initial response, helping the individuals and supporting the initial cleanups from these disasters."

The $1 billion that the House Appropriations Committee approved for FEMA's disaster relief fund on Tuesday comes on top of another billion-dollar infusion last month — a significant move because Republican House leaders have been slashing spending in most areas.

But Alabama Republican Robert Aderholt, who chairs the subcommittee that oversees FEMA funding, says there isn't much debate about the need for this money.

"We need to be good stewards of the people's money, but at the same time, I think most Americans agree when there is a real disaster like this, that's what this fund is for," he says.

Aderholt knows firsthand the impact of this spring's storms. His Alabama district was hit hard by a tornado last month.

What happened there, he says, "can only be compared with the reconstruction process back after the Civil War. So when you take all these together, it's something — apart from Sept. 11 or Katrina — it's right in that category."

In fact, one of the reasons the FEMA disaster assistance fund needs replenishing is because more than five years later, it's still paying for rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina.

Time To Rethink The Process?

Daniel Kaniewski was a special assistant to President Bush for Homeland Security, who was hired just a month before that storm. Now deputy director of George Washington University's Homeland Security Policy Institute, Kaniewski says it's a challenge for Congress and the White House to fund disaster assistance.

"You can imagine that members of Congress probably have other funding priorities, and they'd rather not just set aside funding for future disasters — they'd rather spend it on current priorities," he says.

The extra disaster spending approved Tuesday will be offset in the budget by cutting money from a program Democrats enacted to encourage automakers to build more fuel-efficient cars.

It's likely Congress will have to find more disaster aid in coming months. Kaniewski says it may be time to re-examine how the federal government provides disaster assistance.

State and local officials are often after Washington to help pay for their budget needs, and what they sometimes see as a disaster may be just the normal course of winter.

"Some disasters are obvious, where state and local governments are overwhelmed and federal assistance is warranted," Kaniewski says. "But others, frankly there's snowstorms and other incidents where many feel it's not appropriate for the federal government to be involved."

It's not clear when the money approved by the House Appropriations Committee will be available. The measure must still wind its way through the House and Senate, a process that could take months.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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