FEMA disaster relief may be further delayed

September 23, 2011

States and cities affected by recent natural disasters might not be able to get federal relief starting Tuesday if Congress doesn’t act to shore up funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

As of Friday morning, FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund had only $175 million, and it probably will be empty next week for the first time in its history, the agency said. It is consulting with White House lawyers to determine what to do if funds evaporate.

“The administration is committed to doing all it can under current legal authorities to continue vital operations, including assistance to individuals,” FEMA spokeswoman Rachel Racusen said in an e-mail. “But there is no question this is a critical situation and one we are watching closely.”

The disaster fund pays for all costs associated with presidentially declared disasters, including individual and public assistance payments and operational costs. Agency officials, who prefer to keep the fund flush with about $1 billion, quickly drained the account in late September after Hurricane Irene caused significant damage across 12 states and Puerto Rico.

In anticipation of the hurricane, FEMA suspended payments for earlier disasters to cover Irene-related cleanup efforts. The agency has done similar money shifts over the past decade. The recent decision means further delay for at least $447 million worth of projects in 42 states.

In North Dakota, a state ravaged in recent years by blizzards and floods, the delays are tying up traffic. The state is waiting for at least $13.3 million for 97 projects to elevate or repave roads, according to FEMA figures. Meanwhile, washed-out roads and impassable bridges are forcing drivers in rural communities to take hour-long detours during their commutes, according to Mary Singer, an emergency management official with Burleigh County, N.D., which encompasses Bismarck.

FEMA’s prolonged application and payment process means some rural areas are waiting months for disaster assessment teams to arrive, and then months longer for federal dollars, Singer said. Delays can make it more difficult to complete flood-related reconstruction projects before the ground freezes in the winter.

“We realize that blizzards and flooding aren’t as exciting to some people as hurricanes are,” Singer said, “but this is something that North Dakota has almost been perpetually dealing with in the last three to five years.”

And, she added, those hour-long detours “are a lot for a citizen to do day after day while they wait for Congress to reappropriate the Disaster Relief Fund.”

In Ohio, Doug Cade, the chief engineer of Lawrence County, is dealing with 108 landslides and 192 damaged bridges along 388 miles of county roads. He’s waiting for $43,186 in federal funding so he can start repaving roads washed out by torrential rain in May — and has as many as 300 other sites that also could be eligible for FEMA dollars.

The agency’s damage assessment teams are fanning out across southern Ohio to survey sites, but if disaster funds are depleted they might have to pack up and leave, forcing Cade to rewrite his budget. In a normal year, Cade would spend about $400,000 repaving 50 miles of road, but he has already appropriated that money for cleanup costs.

“Eventually, we’d like to see all of the roads in our county in good condition,” Cade said. “It’s not something that an influx of money at one time is going to solve.”

The holdups are forcing an untold number of cities and towns to put off a host of projects, according to Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie, who chairs an emergency management committee for the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Cownie’s city is waiting for up to $6 million to negotiate buyouts with 62 homeowners along a tributary to the Des Moines River that flooded in 2010. The uprooted families are eager to move on, he said.

“I just think it’s a shame that we’re playing politics with people’s lives,” Cownie said. “People rely on the federal government to respond. Those people that we elected, we want them to respond.”

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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