White House: Hurricane Irene will cost government at least $1.5 billion


President Obama and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), left, meet with residents in Wayne, N.J., after Hurricane Irene. (Charles Dharapak/Associated Press)

The White House says it will need at least $1.5 billion in fiscal 2012 to start paying the federal government’s share of damages caused by Hurricane Irene.

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An estimate released Monday is on top of $5.2 billion the Obama administration said last week that it needs to keep funding reconstruction projects prompted by previous natural disasters, including the tornadoes in Joplin, Mo., this past spring and Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The estimates come as Senate appropriators plan Tuesday to begin considering the annual homeland security spending bill. A GOP-backed version passed by the House includes $1 billion in supplemental assistance for fiscal 2011 and $2.65 billion for fiscal 2012, which begins Oct. 1.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) and other Republicans have called on the Senate to pass the measure, which would pay for storm damage by cutting some money allocated for an Energy Department program for advanced-technology vehicles.

Senate Democrats are expected to propose giving the Federal Emergency Management Agency even more money to pay for multiple disasters but have not said whether they would cut funding for other government programs as an offset.

Most of the money that will cover Irene’s damages will come from FEMA’s disaster relief fund, which has less than $800 million — much less than the $1 billion officials prefer to keep on hand.

President Obama has declared major federal disasters caused by Irene in Puerto Rico and 10 states — Vermont, New York, North Carolina, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Virginia, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Massachusetts — making the states and affected residents eligible for federal storm aid.

FEMA money is paid to individuals not covered by private insurance and to state and local governments if the federal government determines damage costs exceeds their financial capabilities. By law, FEMA and other federal agencies that provide disaster assistance cannot duplicate insurance and other private benefits paid to individuals.

Writing in his blog on Monday, White House budget director Jacob J. Lew said that as Congress begins debating disaster relief bills, “We are watching the situation closely. If additional funds are needed to get us through the closing days of this fiscal year, we will make sure that whatever resources are needed are provided.”

During a visit to flood-ravaged northern New Jersey on Sunday, Obama said much the same.

“The entire country is behind you,” the president told survivors after viewing the destruction. “We are going to make sure that we provide all the resources that’s necessary in order to help these communities rebuild.”

Do you think $1.5 billion is going to be enough? Should any disaster funds be offset by other government spending cuts? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Follow Ed O’Keefe on Twitter: @edatpost

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Ed O’Keefe is covering the 2016 presidential campaign, with a focus on Jeb Bush and other Republican candidates. He's covered presidential and congressional politics since 2008. Off the trail, he's covered Capitol Hill, federal agencies and the federal workforce, and spent a brief time covering the war in Iraq.

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