Threat of shutdown delaying Colorado flood relief

September 27, 2013
Flood damage in Greeley Colo. during a helicopter tour by Vice President Joe Biden, Gov. John Hickenlooper, and FEMA officials, of flood-ravaged areas , Monday, Sept. 23, 2013. (AP Photo/The Denver Post, Kathryn Scott Osler, Pool)
Flood damage in Greeley, Colo. is seen during a helicopter tour by Vice President Biden, Gov. John Hickenlooper, and FEMA officials, of flood-ravaged areas, Sept. 23, 2013. (Kathryn Scott Osler/AP/The Denver Post)

Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill have until midnight on Monday to agree to a budget that would keep the government funded and operating, but the threat of a shutdown is already having an impact on Coloradans waiting for flood relief.

Two weeks after massive flooding damaged or destroyed nearly 20,000 homes and displaced tens of thousands of residents in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, members of Colorado’s congressional delegation are worried that a shutdown is delaying federal disaster relief.

Sens. Mark Udall (D) and Michael Bennet (D) and Rep. Cory Gardner (R) introduced legislation on Wednesday to lift a $100 million cap on emergency highway repair. Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) told the Denver Post about 200 miles of Colorado highways were damaged or destroyed in the flooding, and that at least 50 bridges need to be repaired.

But even repairs that can begin immediately are being delayed over the threat of a possible government shutdown. Members of the Utah National Guard will travel to Colorado Thursday to transport equipment to flood-ravaged areas, but work won’t begin until the shutdown threat is averted, or until the government reopens for business.

“Because of the uncertainty of budget constraints and a possible government shutdown, the 1457th [Engineer Battalion] will transport vehicles and equipment to work sites and then return to Utah. Once funding issues have been resolved, which is anticipated to be the first week of October, approximately 120 soldiers of the 1457th will return to Colorado to complete their mission,” the Utah National Guard said in a statement released late Tuesday.

A government shutdown would furlough hundreds of thousands of non-essential federal employees, including National Guardsmen. A planning document [pdf] the Pentagon drew up in advance of the possible government shutdown in October 2011 said National Guard duties would be terminated unless the Secretary of Defense approves those duties; Udall and Bennet have asked Secretary Chuck Hagel to exempt the Guards involved in Colorado recovery from furloughs.

Udall and Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) also introduced a bill this week to prevent future delays in disaster response missions. Their legislation would allow National Guard disaster response missions to continue, and provide funding for Guard members to be paid, even in the event of a government shutdown.

“Colorado’s flood victims and military families shouldn’t suffer if Washington gridlock and partisan stalemates lead to a government shutdown,” Udall said in a statement.

President Obama has already issued a federal disaster declaration for Colorado. And the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s cleanup and relief efforts won’t be effected by a possible shutdown, agency spokesman Dan Watson said. The Disaster Relief Fund, which provides funding for the response, carries over from one fiscal year to another, meaning the money will still be available if a shutdown occurs.

“The response in Colorado will not be impacted by a government shutdown and we won’t see an impact to the individual assistance being provided to disaster survivors,” Watson said.

But that doesn’t mean at least some employees at FEMA and other federal agencies involved in the response, including the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Small Business Administration, the Federal Highway Administration and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, won’t be furloughed. Federal workers involved in appraising, assessing and approving loans would all likely be considered non-essential personnel, which could delay rebuilding funds, at least temporarily.

“We are concerned that the furloughs resulting from a shutdown could inevitably remove some key staff who are currently overseeing the process in Colorado, increasing the likelihood of errors that could impact Colorado families just beginning to rebuild,” said Adam Bozzi, a spokesman for Bennet. “We also worry that a shutdown could slow down FEMA’s ability to approve certain recovery projects funded through FEMA public assistance, which towns and local communities hit by this flooding need to have expedited.”

The prospects of a shutdown are even more frightening to Colorado emergency responders because of the calendar. Snow starts falling in the Rocky Mountains in earnest in October; according to data maintained by the Western Regional Climate Center, an average of seven inches of snow has fallen in Estes Park, one of the small towns hit hard by the flooding, in October. An average of 10 inches has fallen in November, meaning crews are working against the clock to repair washed-out roads before the long, snowy winter comes.

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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