FEMA weighs options for stretching budget into next week

Congress has never allowed the disaster relief fund to run out of money.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency's disaster relief fund is expected to go broke on Thursday, according to the office of Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who chairs the homeland security appropriations panel overseeing FEMA. But FEMA says it also is considering options to keep its funding going through early next week.

Congress has never allowed the fund to run out of money. In September alone, FEMA provided more than $600 million in aid to individuals and recovery projects, and the repercussions of an empty till would be felt across the country.

"Under law, FEMA would be forced to temporarily shut down disaster recovery and assistance operations, including financial assistance to individuals, until Congress appropriated more funds," FEMA spokeswoman Rachel Racusen said on Monday. "This would include all past and current FEMA recovery operations."

State and local officials and emergency managers across the country are sounding alarm bells if Congress allows the disaster relief fund to run out of money. They have been lobbying lawmakers with letters laying out their concerns and the potential consequences.

"The nation appears on target this year to experience a record number of disasters, with 81 declared thus far," Tom Cochran, executive director of the United States Conference of Mayors, wrote in a letter on Friday to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

"Compounding the problems are the serious economic and unemployment problems we face - problems which have significantly limited the ability of local and state governments to provide their share of the help that is needed," he added. The letter calls on Congress to replenish the disaster fund without requiring cuts to other programs.

The National League of Cities last week also called for disaster funding to be provided without cutting other programs.

Faced with insufficient funds as the end of the fiscal year on Friday approaches, FEMA is now only providing disaster aid to the most critical recovery projects. But states and communities across the country are facing a whole slew of new projects as a result of disasters like tornadoes that ravaged Joplin, Mo., and Hurricane Irene that blasted the East Coast.

FEMA's relief fund reimburses communities for recovery projects and provides direct assistance to individuals hurt by disasters. But communities are now hesitant to begin paying for new projects due to uncertainty about being reimbursed. That means efforts to fix washed-out roads or rebuild infrastructure are on hold, the effects of which could be compounded with winter approaching.

The presidents of the National Association of Counties, the National Emergency Management Association and the International Association of Emergency Managers sent a letter on Thursday to lawmakers listing key projects across the country that are in jeopardy because of insufficient funding. For example, recent flooding of the Mississippi River in Louisiana resulted in $60 million worth of projects that are being delayed, the groups wrote to Senate Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, and ranking member Thad Cochran, R-Miss.

About 850 projects in Kentucky costing about $25.3 million are on hold, they added, and about 515 projects in Alabama totaling nearly $32 million are being delayed as the state continues to struggle to recover from massive storms and tornadoes earlier this year.

"In addition to backlogged funding and project worksheets, most states and communities will have entirely lost the 2011 construction season by the time the [disaster relief fund] is replenished," they wrote.

The National Governors Association sent a letter to congressional leaders on Sept. 19 calling for sufficient funding to be provided, saying it appears the nation will exceed the record number of 81 disasters a year ago. "None of us-no state, no congressional district-is immune to the loss of lives and property due to the vagaries of the weather," the group wrote.

The House voted 219-203 on Friday for a spending bill to keep the government operating through Nov. 18, including about $3.7 billion in new disaster aid that would be partly offset with $1.6 billion in cuts to two loan programs. Senate Democrats have put forward legislation that is nearly identical to the House bill, but which does not require spending cuts to offset the aid.