With less than $1 billion currently available for federal disaster assistance, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is temporarily suspending payments to rebuild roads, schools and other structures destroyed during spring tornadoes in Joplin, Mo. and southern states in order to pay for damage caused by Hurricane Irene.
FEMA will still pay people eligible for individual storm assistance and some states recouping emergency response costs from previous disasters. But the agency said it will place restrictions on paying for older longer-term public rebuilding and mitigation projects in order to ensure the solvency of the federal disaster relief fund, which pays for emergency management costs and public rebuilding projects.
The decision affects the spring tornadoes and disasters dating back several years and “prioritizes the immediate, urgent needs of survivors and states when preparing for or responding to a disaster,” said FEMA spokeswoman Rachel Racusen.
The federal government similarly suspended some disaster payments in 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2010, according to FEMA.
Overnight, President Obama signed federal emergency declarations for the District of Columbia and Delaware, opening a stream of funding to pay for emergency response efforts there. Ten states, the District and Puerto Rico have applied for federal emergency assistance since last week.
Also late Saturday, Obama declared a major disaster in Puerto Rico, a move that makes money available to individuals affected by Irene’s destruction.
The White House is expected to declare similar disasters in other states as soon as today, further sapping money from the relief fund, which currently has about $900 million, below the $1 billion officials prefer to keep on hand.
The shortfall means the Obama administration will soon request supplemental funding from Congress, likely causing another fight over federal spending as a new “supercommittee” prepares to identify trillions of dollars in government spending cuts.
Already House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) has said that any new money for FEMA will be offset by spending cuts elsewhere.
“We’ve had discussions about these things before and [FEMA] monies will be offset with appropriate savings or cost-cutting elsewhere in order to meet the priority of the federal government’s role in a situation like this,” Cantor said at a news conference last week after an earthquake struck his congressional district.
On Saturday, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) urged the Senate to quickly approve the House GOP version of the annual Homeland Security spending measure that includes $1 billion for additional disaster funding this year and $2.65 billion for fiscal 2012.
"Time and time again, the [Obama] administration has ignored the obvious funding needs of the Disaster Relief Fund, purposefully and irresponsibly underfunding the account and putting families and communities who have suffered from terrible disasters on the back burner," Rogers said. "Now the administration has let the fund reach critically low levels, putting continued recovery at risk, without a plan for the future or a clear method for dealing with new disasters."
Ahead of the money crunch, FEMA began providing weekly updates to congressional appropriators on funding shortfalls in May; daily updates began this month, an agency official said Sunday.
Several other agencies also provide funding after natural disasters, including the Small Business Administration and departments of Housing and Urban Development and Agriculture, but their current funding levels were not immediately known.
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