Fight brewing over replenishing FEMA’s emergency funds after Hurricane Irene

With estimated damage from Hurricane Irene topping $7 billion, the White House and some in Congress are at odds over where to find money to replenish the disaster relief fund of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has dipped below the $1 billion level considered advisable.

On Sunday, FEMA stirred some controversy when it announced that to meet the current crisis it was temporarily suspending payments for rebuilding in areas hit by earlier disasters, such as this spring's tornadoes in Missouri and other states. Then on Monday, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor told a Fox News audience that any new federal disaster monies would require offsetting cuts in other spending, igniting a round of budgetary who-goes-first.

"The House passed, and leader Cantor supported, the Homeland Security appropriations bill, which includes additional money to replenish the FEMA disaster fund," a Cantor spokeswoman said Tuesday. "That funding was offset. The Senate has thus far failed to act on that legislation. There has been no additional request made for emergency dollars."

Cantor's aide added the House will "respond appropriately" if President Obama requests emergency funding, but "in the interim, we can't respond to an emergency request that doesn't yet exist."

A White House spokeswoman was noncommittal about a new funding request. "We are monitoring the situation very closely and will be working with state and local governments to assess the damage in the days and weeks ahead," she said. "As the president said . . . we will ensure that families and communities affected by this disaster have the resources necessary to recover from the worst damage. It's too early to tell what the damage assessment will be and what next steps may need to be taken."

The notion of requiring offsets for new hurricane relief drew skepticism from White House chief spokesman Jay Carney. "This president is very committed to fiscal discipline, and . . . obviously we applaud those who are committed also," he told reporters Tuesday. "I guess I can't help but say that I wish that commitment to looking for offsets had been held by the House majority leader and others, say, during the previous administration when they ran up unprecedented bills and not paid -- and never paid for them."

Firm opposition to Cantor's demand came from Senate assistant majority leader Dick Durbin, D-Ill. If the president "believes that we can nip and tuck at the rest of the federal budget and somehow take care of disasters, he's totally out of touch with reality," Durbin told the Associated Press on Tuesday. On July 28, he chaired a hearing on natural disaster policy and warned that the federal funds were low at the start of hurricane season and cautioned against "sporadic federal budgeting."

Also in opposition to offsets is Senate Appropriations' Homeland Security Subcommittee chairwoman Mary Landrieu, D-La., who announced plans for markups on boosting funding for disaster funding set to convene on Sept. 6.

"During Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall in my home state six years ago today, we saw firsthand the importance of comprehensive disaster preparedness and response," she said in a statement. "The American people deserve to know that critical assistance won't be held up by petty political squabbles in Washington. It makes no sense to cut programs that help respond to future disasters in order to pay for emergencies that have already occurred."

Rep. David Price, D-N.C., ranking member on the House Homeland Security Appropriations Committee, said, "Congress should pass an emergency supplemental to replenish the disaster relief fund as soon as possible. Livelihoods and local economies depend on swift relief and assistance in the event of a natural disaster, and the millions of Americans affected by Irene and other recent events can't afford to wait around while Republicans pick another budget fight with the president by holding disaster relief hostage to further spending cuts."

FEMA's reshuffling of funds did not sit well with some lawmakers from affected regions, such as Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. "The federal government has committed resources to help Missouri communities recover from crippling flood and tornado damage, and I expect that commitment to be fulfilled expeditiously," he said. "Recovery from hurricane damage on the East Coast must not come at the expense of Missouri's rebuilding efforts. If FEMA can't fulfill its promise to our state because we have other disasters, that's unacceptable, and we need to take a serious look at how our disaster response policies are funded and implemented."

Fugate on Monday sought to clarify that FEMA's maneuver affected only long-term programs. "We said we went to immediate needs funding, and a lot of people thought, well, the people that had been impacted by the tornadoes and floods, we're going to take that money away from them," he said. "The survivors that are eligible for assistance are still getting funds. Individual assistance programs were not affected by this, nor were any protective measures or any debris clearance or any project that had already been approved."

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by G Suite

    Cross-Agency Teamwork, Anytime and Anywhere

    Dan McCrae, director of IT service delivery division, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

  • Data-Centric Security vs. Database-Level Security

    Database-level encryption had its origins in the 1990s and early 2000s in response to very basic risks which largely revolved around the theft of servers, backup tapes and other physical-layer assets. As noted in Verizon’s 2014, Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR)1, threats today are far more advanced and dangerous.

  • Federal IT Applications: Assessing Government's Core Drivers

    In order to better understand the current state of external and internal-facing agency workplace applications, Government Business Council (GBC) and Riverbed undertook an in-depth research study of federal employees. Overall, survey findings indicate that federal IT applications still face a gamut of challenges with regard to quality, reliability, and performance management.

  • PIV- I And Multifactor Authentication: The Best Defense for Federal Government Contractors

    This white paper explores NIST SP 800-171 and why compliance is critical to federal government contractors, especially those that work with the Department of Defense, as well as how leveraging PIV-I credentialing with multifactor authentication can be used as a defense against cyberattacks

  • Toward A More Innovative Government

    This research study aims to understand how state and local leaders regard their agency’s innovation efforts and what they are doing to overcome the challenges they face in successfully implementing these efforts.

  • From Volume to Value: UK’s NHS Digital Provides U.S. Healthcare Agencies A Roadmap For Value-Based Payment Models

    The U.S. healthcare industry is rapidly moving away from traditional fee-for-service models and towards value-based purchasing that reimburses physicians for quality of care in place of frequency of care.

  • GBC Flash Poll: Is Your Agency Safe?

    Federal leaders weigh in on the state of information security


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.