FEMA tightens purse strings on disaster fund

Tuesday - 8/30/2011, 5:14am EDT

Jared Serbu, reporter, Federal News Radio

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By Jared Serbu
Reporter
Federal News Radio

After a fiscal year with an unusually large number of expensive disasters, the pot of money the Federal Emergency Management Agency relies on to respond to those events is on the verge of running out.

Because of that, they're focusing all their remaining funding on the response to Hurricane Irene.

FEMA's decision puts them in what officials call an immediate needs funding mode. The agency is trying to preserve what it has left in its disaster relief fund so it can handle the costs of cleaning up after Irene, said Craig Fugate, FEMA's administrator.

No one's sure yet what that bill will be — the agency has not yet ventured forth with an estimate. But the amount of money left in the fund is now around $900 million.

"We will discontinue repair work that's considered permanent from previous, older disasters," Fugate said in a conference call with reporters Monday. "That does not mean that any of the survivors in any of the more recent disasters, such as Joplin or the southeast tornadoes, will not get assistance. All of the individual assistance programs will continue to be funded."

On the back burner?

But any work that hasn't already been submitted to FEMA and approved for repairs and rebuilding from previous disasters now is on the back burner, and can't be funded for the time being. Fugate said FEMA has had to go into immediate needs funding mode several times in the past, and funding always has been restored to long-term projects eventually.

"Coming to the end of our fiscal year, we were expecting either a budget or a continuing resolution. Once we know how much impact Irene will have, we'll have a better sense of what [budget] assistance we'll need," he said. "The one thing we didn't want to do was to reach a point where we had to discontinue the assistance to survivors. Our goal is to keep this as short as possible, but a lot of it is the uncertainty of how much we're going to spend on Irene and what we're going to have to work with the White House on to look at our funding."

A round of unusually severe disasters across the country has made it an expensive year for FEMA's disaster relief fund. Floods, tornadoes and heat waves have caused $35 billion in losses across the country.

For the House and Senate to appropriate additional funds for FEMA, the Congress would have to agree on the Homeland Security Department fiscal 2012 spending bill. The House's version of DHS's budget includes an extra $1 billion in disaster relief funding that could be spent this year, but House Minority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said Republicans want that money to be offset by spending reductions elsewhere in government.

"Yes, there's a federal role, yes we're going to find the money, we're just going to need to make sure that there are savings elsewhere to continue to do so," Cantor said Monday on Fox News.

Meanwhile, the operations of federal agencies along the Eastern seaboard are continuing to return to normal, although about a dozen federal worksites still are closed because of the storm, according to the General Services Administration.

The Office of Personnel Management told workers in the national capital region that normal work hours were in effect Tuesday. Unscheduled leave and telework had been approved Monday in Irene's immediate aftermath.

Past the brunt of the storm

Naval Station Norfolk, the world's largest naval installation, is scheduled to fully reopen Tuesday for the first time since the hurricane struck. And some of the ships that headed out to sea to get out of Irene's path are beginning to return to their ports.

Rear Adm. Rick Breckenridge, commander of the Groton, Conn.-based Submarine Group Two, said the submarines that sortied from his base ahead of the storm will begin their return Tuesday, although approximately 90 percent of the community surrounding the base remained without power.

"We are past the brunt of the storm and as typical of hearty New England fashion we faced the challenge and rose to the occasion," he said. "I'm proud of the team here in Groton responding to this calling."

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(Copyright 2011 by Federal News Radio. All Rights Reserved.)