The Federal Emergency Management Agency is officially running low on cash, and now is delaying payments for long-term rebuilding projects in Joplin, Missouri and other disaster-affected areas in order to conserve funds for future emergency response. FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate says that FEMA now has only $800 million on hand, and the rest of those funds are needed for emergency responses to any future hurricanes, earthquakes, etc. As a result, FEMA is no longer sending checks to help rebuild roads, schools, and other damaged structures in Missouri, Alabama, and other communities struck by natural disasters. Those who suffered property damage from Hurricane Irene will also presumably have to wait for long-term disaster relief funds.
FEMA has said that individuals who are eligible for short-term assistance will still receive their checks from the agency. However, that is likely little comfort to places like Joplin as they try to start a new school year and rebuild the infrastructure so crucial to their economy. Both President Obama and Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO) promised to stand by Joplin and make sure the community had what it needs to rebuild. That promise will not be fulfilled unless additional funds are appropriated to the agency.
Blunt directed most of his anger at FEMA itself, but even if the agency spent all of the remaining $800 million on hand it would not come close to covering the costs of rebuilding Joplin and other areas affected by natural disasters over the past year. In addition, if FEMA depleted all of its funds it would not be able to prepare or quickly respond to the next disaster.
The real obstruction to funds comes from Congress. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) has demanded spending cuts for any additional disaster relief funds. Historically the Congress has approved aid for natural disaster without demanding spending cuts. Cantor himself voted for aid after Hurricane Katrina without any accompanying cuts. However, the new majority in Congress has used any means to gain more spending cut concessions from the President and Democrats.
The problem with the spending cuts demand is that it dramatically slows the process. All the “easy” spending cuts have already been agreed upon in the last budget agreement and debt ceiling compromise. Finding new cuts and putting those cuts through the legislative “sausage making” process takes time. Meanwhile, the people of Joplin try to deal with inadequate roads and no high school building.