Senators worry disaster fund could run dry

Great Falls Tribune

by Bart Jansen

WASHINGTON — Senators from both parties said Wednesday that they are worried the Federal Emergency Management Agency could run out of disaster relief money early next fiscal year.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said FEMA estimates it will be short $2 billion to $4.2 billion in the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1.

“Without additional funds, it is very likely this fund will be exhausted as early as January,” said Landrieu, who led a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing on FEMA’s funding. “Recovery efforts, therefore, in all 50 states, including those recently harmed by flooding and tornadoes, will cease.”

FEMA hasn’t yet tallied the costs of recent tornadoes and flooding, which brought the number of states hit with disasters this year to 36.

Historically, Congress approved money for the agency’s disaster relief fund as emergencies arose. FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate said lawmakers will have to decide whether to designate more ahead of time or wait for disasters to occur.

“It’s a long discussion,” Fugate said. “For this year, we’re going to have to add up the damages.”

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said his state expects to be added to the disaster list because of flooding along the Missouri River, with snowpack still to melt. He asked repeatedly asked Fugate whether the agency needs more money.

“We’ve seen an almost unprecedented string of disasters across the country this spring,” Tester said. “As the disaster assistance fund is further depleted, it’s going to force you to make some very difficult decisions.”

Fugate said his agency anticipates having surplus funds in the current fiscal year — based on estimates made before recent tornadoes and flooding — but he’s still tallying those costs. He called 2011 “exceptional.”

“In the current fiscal year, we are watching closely the obligations for the most recent disasters,” Fugate said.

Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., said his state, which was hit by tornadoes, now faces the threat of hurricanes.

“Just because we didn’t have any last year doesn’t mean we won’t have any this year,” Cochran said. “We don’t want you to be shy about asking for the funds that you need in our states that have been hit hard by these storms. I hope you’ll be arguing in the meetings you have with the administration to be generous.”

Fugate described the damage from the severe tornadoes that swept across Missouri and Alabama as “very focused.” But he warned that a major hurricane could drain his funding faster.

“If we have a large-scale outbreak or a big hurricane hit, those funds will diminish rapidly,” Fugate said. “The cost of responding to largescale disasters are substantially greater than what we’ve seen in the recent response.”