Disaster aid shortfalls loom despite GOP boost

May 13, 2011 - 3:44 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — As floods ravage the Mississippi basin and the South picks itself up from last month's devastating tornadoes, Republicans controlling a key House panel boosted funding for relief efforts on Friday to address a major shortfall in the Obama administration's disaster aid budget.

The $850 million boost awarded to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for disaster payments to individuals and municipalities, however, only partially fills a hole estimated at $3 billion or more — and that's before the bills come in from the recent wave of disasters.

The FEMA funding was approved as a House Appropriations panel approved a $42.3 billion budget for the Department of Homeland Security by a voice vote. It's the first of 12 spending bills for 2012 to begin to advance.

Congress will have to revisit the issue next year as disaster funds run dry. And that sets up a big question for GOP leaders: Should other programs be cut to help flood and tornado victims or would it be okay to fund them as an unforeseeable emergency? Tea party-backed GOP conservatives seem likely to fight against the latter option, which would pad the deficit by perhaps $3 billion.

FEMA has plenty of disaster recovery money for now. But the Obama administration only requested $1.8 billion for the budget year that begins in October, less than half of what will be needed to deal with recovery costs of past disasters like hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav and the massive Tennessee floods of last spring even as the next wave of bills come in. Authorities are beginning to assess the damage and don't have estimates of recovery costs.

"We're going to make sure you're not forgotten," Obama said to tornado victims in Alabama last month.

That drew a pointed response from Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who has been strongly critical of the administration's disaster relief efforts.

"You made a similar promise in New Orleans on the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina," Landrieu wrote Obama on May 2. "These promises cannot be fulfilled without funding."

Just last month, Congress added $1 billion to disaster coffers to fill an immediate FEMA shortfall, but a Landrieu aide says the agency is warning that this summer it may have to delay grants to cities and counties for rebuilding public infrastructure like schools and sewer systems.

Such infrastructure grants were withheld for six months last year — including funding for projects in Landrieu's state — until the backlog was addressed with a $5.1 billion supplemental appropriation last summer.

Landrieu has written to Obama three times this year asking the White House to send up an official disaster aid request. It's never arrived, which forced lawmakers to raid other homeland security accounts like grants to help cities and towns train first responders to come up with last month's $1 billion . Those cuts are being redoubled as the budget for the Department of Homeland Security begins to advance this month.

"We are responding to the recent disasters in the South with available money from FEMA's Disaster Relief Fund," said Med Reilly, a spokeswoman for the White House budget office. "There are no plans for a supplemental appropriations request from the Administration at this time."

Lawmakers are plainly frustrated.

"If you look at the amount of money that's being spent on a monthly basis," said Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., "the request is not in keeping with what we refer to as the burn rate." Aderholt, the chairman of the House panel responsible for FEMA's budget, has a personal stake in the shortfall; his district got slammed by last month's hurricanes.

"My constituents in Alabama are expecting for FEMA to get it right," Aderholt said. He called Obama's disaster aid request "wholly inadequate."

But Aderholt acknowledges the GOP's move to boost recovery funding for next year to $2.65 billion only partially addresses the problem. What is more, since there's a lag time between a disaster and when rebuilding efforts can begin, it's likely that the disaster relief fund would run dry just as cities and towns in Alabama and the Mississippi River basin will be ready to rebuild.