Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano is urging Congress to put politics aside and quickly approve federal disaster funding for Hurricane Irene when it’s requested.

Political gridlock “should not be the first concern of the Congress,” Napolitano said Tuesday. “I think the first concern of the Congress is what do we need to protect the health and safety of the people that we’re all privileged to represent. Congress knows that this is historically the way disaster relief has been funded.” (See the video above.)

Congressional Republicans have said they will approve more federal money if needed. But they plan to propose spending cuts elsewhere to make up the difference — potentially making disaster funding a part of the broader, politically-charged discussions over total federal spending.

Over the weekend, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said it had only $900 million in its disaster relief fund, prompting the agency to begin restricting funds for some recovery and reconstruction projects for older natural disasters.

Napolitano said congressional appropriators “have known in detail” for months that FEMA’s fund ran the risk of dropping below the $1 billion it prefers to keep on hand as the fiscal year ended. And she said this has happened before.

“At the beginning of the fiscal year, they don’t give you a crystal ball,” she said. “So the way they do the [Disaster Relief Fund] is they get the three-year rolling average. And then if you need more, then at the end of the year there’s a supplemental” bill passed by Congress and money is held up until more funding is provided.

Napolitano spoke Tuesday at a reporter breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor.

The secretary, who will tour storm-ravaged areas of North Carolina and Virginia on Tuesday (while FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate visits flood-ravaged Vermont), said it is too early to know the federal costs of recovery and cleanup efforts because states are still conducting damage assessments.

And despite accusations that politicians and the news media overhyped the dangers of Irene, Napolitano said New York City and the news media acted appropriately in advance of the storm.

“We all had to be prepared based on the best information that was available before the fact,” she said. “This still was a deadly storm. We lost lives in this storm. The damages will be significant. It covered a huge amount of ground. It affected a lot of basic infrastructure.”

As for the news media, she said, “Given the type of storm it was, the huge nature of it, the damage that it has caused, the loss of life that it has caused, media had to make good plans for what it was going to cover, and it did.”

With the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks less than two weeks away, Napolitano said the United States is “categorically safer” than before the attacks and that the Homeland Security Department is much stronger than before.

Asked about the drunk driving arrest of President Obama’s uncle over the weekend in Framingham, Mass., Napolitano said she could not comment on the case, and she demurred when asked whether the Kenyan would be deported.

Obama Onyango, 67, is the subject of a long-standing deportation order but has had a valid Massachusetts driver’s license and Social Security number for at least 19 years, according to local news reports.

“I really don’t know about it. I know in general that his uncle has been picked up,” Napolitano said.

Follow Ed O’Keefe on Twitter: @edatpost


After Irene, FEMA facing a disaster of its own — funding

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