Obama and the Disaster Relief Fund: A Calculated Policy of Malicious Neglect
September 3, 2011 • 10:20AM

When FEMA officials announced on Aug. 28 that they would have to suspend recovery payments to tornado- and flood-ravaged areas of the middle and southern portions of the United States in order to meet immediate needs stemming from Hurricane Irene, there is no way that that could have come as a surprise. Members of Congress from both parties had been warning for months that FEMA's disaster relief fund was running short of money, and had repeatedly called on President Obama to respond to that need.

Between Feb. 16 and May 2, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, wrote three letters to Obama calling on him to ask for more money for the disaster relief fund, because of growing shortfalls in recovery efforts. In her first letter, Landrieu noted that last year, FEMA was forced to stop making payments for over five months, because it ran out of money. In a May 25 "Dear Colleague" letter, Landrieu wrote that the President has issued 27 disaster declarations in 18 states, yet "he has not sought additional funding to cover these events." She noted that the $3 billion estimate did not include the more recent disasters, including the flooding of the Mississippi and the more recent tornadoes. "Without this funding," she warned, "FEMA will have to stop recovery efforts in 50 states in the Spring of 2012."

She also noted that other agencies, including the Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, will require additional funding for disaster recovery efforts. "In the past, the Senate, on a bipartisan basis, has approved such emergency funding," she wrote. "I encourage you to reach out to the President, urging him to request such funding, and to ask the Senate leadership to consider such legislation in an expedited fashion."

A staffer for Landrieu told the London Financial Times on Aug. 31 that the shortfall in the DRF might be as much as $5-$6 billion by October, and that it might need to be increased by $10 billion.

On May 24, the House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee reported out its bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security, which includes the FEMA budget, which included $1 billion in supplemental funding for FY 2011 for the disaster relief fund, and another $2.65 billion for FY 2012, a significant boost over the $1.85 billion in the White House's budget request. Subcommittee chairman Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.) said at the time, "Under the best case scenario, the disaster relief fund will essentially run dry before the end of the year. That means sometime in mid- to late Summer.... Recovery, rebuilding, and general assistance will stop." The problem is that the extra money is paid for by taking it out of other parts of the budget, an approach that won't fly in the Democratically-controlled Senate.

Landrieu plans to take up the Senate version of the bill on Sept. 6, when both houses return from their summer recess.

Nor has the growing shortfall been unnoticed by at least one relevant member of the administration. FEMA head Craig Fugate confirmed, in testimony to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on March 30, that the Disaster Recovery Fund will, indeed, start running short of funds in the May-June time period, at which point, FEMA will have to curtail some activities, including hazard mitigation. And yet, there's still been no request for supplemental funding coming from the White House, leaving Congress to its own devices, which, so far have produced nothing.

The White House response on calls to request more funding for the DRF was summed up in a May 26 USA Today story: The Administration acknowledged that the disaster relief fund could, indeed, run out of money. "The relief fund 'could be solvent until calendar year 2012,' Meg Reilly, a spokeswoman for the Office of Management and Budget, said in an e-mail [to USA Today]. 'But that will depend on the summer storm season and other factors.'"

As a result, disaster recovery projects all over the country and stretching back to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 are being put on hold, because of the shortage of funding at FEMA. This includes public aid to counties in Arkansas to repair infrastructure damage caused by flooding and tornadoes in that state, and $30 million for buyout packages in Nashville, Tenn. stemming from flooding in May 2010.

"I urge Congress to give FEMA the funds it needs so that flood victims in Nashville can get the money they have rightfully been anticipating for months now," Nashville Mayor Karl Dean said in a Sept. 1 release. "I understand homeowners deep frustrations, and I call on Congress to act quickly. Nashvillians have already been victims of the flood. They should not also have to be victims of congressional delay."

Flood victims in the Illinois counties of Stephenson, Jo Daviess, and Carroll Counties will also face delays if those counties are declared Federal disaster areas.

The contrast of the Obama Administration's lack of response to disasters is stark, when compared to the Clinton Administration. Clinton always asked Congress for supplemental appropriations to help disaster victims, and if the Republican-controlled Congress tried to use those measures as vehicles for their partisan agenda, Clinton would fight back, and he usually won. What a difference Presidential leadership makes!