The battle for federal emergency aid is set to become a political free-for-all after Hurricane Irene destroyed large areas of the Northeast.
Already the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is being accused of diverting money away from Republican districts that were devastated by tornadoes and other natural disasters to help Democratic areas, particularly in New York and Vermont.
About 40 people lost their lives in Irene, whereas the May 22 tornado that leveled Joplin, Mo., killed 160, and another 346 died in three days of twisters that hit eight southern states in April, razing Tuscaloosa, Ala., and causing massive damage elsewhere.
House Republicans and Senate Democrats have been at odds over how much money FEMA should get this year. The agency has had to deal with record snowfalls, raging wildfires, epic droughts and widespread floods as well as tornadoes and the hurricane in a banner year for American disasters.
And with Tropical Storm Katia spinning in the Atlantic and the hurricane season less than halfway through, the potential for further costly emergencies is still high.
House GOP Leader Eric Cantor, whose district in Virginia includes the epicenter of last week’s earthquake and was affected by Irene, said FEMA needs more cash because of the sheer number of natural calamities that have hit this year, but it will have to come from other federal programs.
"We will find the money if there is a need for additional monies," Cantor said on Fox News. “But those monies are not unlimited. And what we've always said is, we've offset that which has already been funded."
Cantor likened the FEMA budget to a family who had to put off buying a new car so they could afford to pay for the needs of a sick relative.
"Unfortunately the government continues to borrow money and to spend money it doesn't have," he said.
That view was attacked by Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, the Democrat who chairs the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee, which is scheduled to meet on Sept. 6 to vote on providing extra cash to the Disaster Relief Fund.
"Requiring offsets for emergency aid isn't about fiscal responsibility, it's about putting politics ahead of disaster victims. And that, to me, is unconscionable," Landrieu said.
FEMA administrator Craig Fugate has put in a request to the White House for additional funding, after its disaster relief fund fell below $1 billion. “We weren’t out of money, but we wanted to make sure we had enough money available to continue supporting the survivors from the past disasters, as well as start the response to Irene,” he said.
In the meantime, Fugate said, he has had to take resources that had been allocated for long-term aid for residents of Joplin and elsewhere and put it towards immediate rescue and relief work for Irene’s victims.
"Our goal is to keep this disruption as short as possible, but it was prudent,” he said.
Despite FEMA’s reassurances to Joplin and other areas that the freeze is temporary during the clean-up following Irene, politicians worry that once the money is taken it will be hard to get it back.
Rep. Billy Long, the Missouri Republican whose district includes Joplin, told Newsmax in a statement that he and his staff have been “in constant contact with FEMA to ensure that FEMA keeps its promise that they would see the rebuilding of Joplin through.”
And the state’s Republican Sen. Roy Blunt worried that FEMA would not “fulfill its promise” to the state now the Joplin tornado has faded in the memory. “Recovery from hurricane damage on the East Coast must not come at the expense of Missouri’s rebuilding efforts,” he said.
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