The Federal Emergency Management Agency is temporarily suspending some payments to rebuild roads, schools and other structures destroyed during spring tornadoes in Joplin, Mo., and Southern states and other recent natural disasters to pay for damage caused by Hurricane Irene.
With initial damage assessments from the storm potentially in the tens of billions of dollars, the Obama administration will need to request supplemental funding from Congress, possibly provoking another fight over federal spending as a new congressional “supercommittee” prepares to identify trillions of dollars in government spending cuts.
FEMA said Sunday it will still pay people eligible for individual storm assistance and some states recouping emergency response costs from previous disasters, but it will restrict payments for older, longer-term public rebuilding and mitigation projects to ensure the solvency of the federal disaster relief fund.
The decision affects projects tied to spring tornadoes and other 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 as recently as last year and in 2006, she said.
Over the weekend, President Obama declared a major federal disaster in Puerto Rico, a move that makes money available to island residents affected by Irene’s destruction. Similar declarations are expected for other states in the coming days.
Federal officials Sunday would not estimate how much Irene’s damage could cost, but New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), speaking Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” said damage estimates “are going to be in the billions of dollars . . . if not the tens of billions of dollars.”
Christie and other governors credited Obama for quickly issuing emergency declarations for their states in advance of the storm to provide money for their response efforts and to allow FEMA officials to assist state and local leaders in initial damage assessments.
But the moves will further sap the federal disaster fund, which over the weekend had about $900 million, according to FEMA, less than the $1 billion officials prefer to keep on hand.
Last week, after a Virginia earthquake that rattled much of the East Coast, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said that any new money for FEMA disaster assistance would need to be offset by spending cuts.
On Saturday, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers (R-Ky.) called on the Senate to quickly pass the House GOP’s version of the annual Homeland Security spending measure, which includes $1 billion in additional money for the disaster fund this year and $2.65 billion for fiscal 2012.
The Obama 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,” Rogers said.
In anticipation of a shortfall, FEMA began providing congressional appropriators with weekly updates on funding levels in May; daily updates began this month, Racusen said.
Several other agencies also provide funding after natural disasters, including the Small Business Administration and the departments of Housing and Urban Development and Agriculture, but their funding levels were not immediately known.
Despite potential funding shortfalls, Obama said Sunday that the federal government would continue providing full assistance to affected states and cities.
“As I’ve told governors and mayors across the affected areas, if they need something, I want to know about it,” he said.