A Budget Target, Disaster Money Is Secure For Now

Streets in Schoharie, N.Y., are lined with storm debris and damaged furniture after Tropical Storm Irene hit in late August. Like dozens of counties across the country, Schoharie faces high costs to repair its infrastructure, putting a strain on FEMA's budget.

Streets in Schoharie, N.Y., are lined with storm debris and damaged furniture after Tropical Storm Irene hit in late August. Like dozens of counties across the country, Schoharie faces high costs to repair its infrastructure, putting a strain on FEMA's budget.

Hans Pennink/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Hans Pennink/AP

The FEMA disaster relief fund is once again flush with cash after coming precariously close to a zero balance last week. The fund got a quick hit of $2.65 billion as part of the temporary measure Congress passed last week to keep the government open for business, but that money may not last very long.

Additional funding for disaster aid became a point of contention when House Republicans insisted that the money be offset by cuts to environmental programs. In the end, the issue was resolved without settling the dispute over offsets.

Disaster Cleanup Continues

FEMA's fund has been used to deal with the aftermath of many disasters this year, from flooding in the Midwest, to tornadoes in Missouri and Alabama, to Tropical Storm Lee and Hurricane Irene on the East Coast.

A month and a half after Irene hit the village of Schoharie, N.Y., large machines are still working to dry out the first floor of the Schoharie County Office Building. There's also water in the basement.

"This water ... running here is being pumped out of the basement of the county office building. They're still pumping water: That's how wet it is, the ground," explains Harold Vroman, chairman of the Schoharie County Board of Supervisors.

Irene's remnants caused major flooding in Schoharie, wrecking homes, and damaging roads and bridges. In the village's cute little downtown, nearly all of the businesses are still boarded up. Vroman says the county office building is also closed.

"It's going to be almost a year by the time they get everything fixed," Vroman says. "You're looking down the road for houses and people [and] businesses, two to three years, five years even."

It's going to take a long time, Vroman says. It will also take a lot of help from the federal government.

"Without that assistance, we might just as well become a ghost town, and that would be such an absolute tragedy," says Alicia Terry, director of planning for the county.

Terry coordinated some of the disaster relief efforts and has been keeping a close eye on Congress, which recently almost shut the government down in a fight over how to pay for disaster funding.

"We understand the need for fiscal adjustments, but please, it cannot come at the expense of the disaster relief that is needed in these communities," Terry says.

The estimated cost to repair Schoharie County infrastructure alone is about as much as a full year's budget for the county: $73 million. This kind of damage is repeated in dozens of counties across the country, and that means the $2.65 billion Congress just added to the FEMA disaster relief fund isn't going to last long.

"Based on our understanding of just disasters that have already occurred, we think we might be able to make it through ... the end of December or January," says Louisiana Democrat Mary Landrieu, chair of the Homeland Security subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

The Obama administration has indicated at least another $4 billion will be needed to get through fiscal year 2012.

The Controversy Evaporates

At this point, given the fight over disaster funding last month, it would seem that another quarrel over FEMA's funding could be on the horizon. But it looks like it's not going to be an issue after all.

As part of the debt limit deal this summer, Congress and the president created an $11 billion cushion to replenish the FEMA disaster relief fund in fiscal year 2012 without having to make cuts to other programs to pay for it.

"There will be roughly around $11 billion that's available for disaster relief without being offset," says Hal Rogers, a Republican from Kentucky who heads the House Appropriations Committee.

Republican demands to offset $1 billion in extra cash for FEMA two weeks ago nearly brought the government to a standstill, yet the possibility of spending as much as $11 billion in this new fiscal year isn't a problem. Sen. Landrieu offers this explanation:

"I wasn't looking for a fight. It all started when Rep. [Eric] Cantor just called for offsets for these disasters. And I said, 'No, that is not the way we've done it in the past.' "

When asked about whether his members would require offsets for additional FEMA money this fiscal year, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Virginia Republican, pointed back to the debt-limit deal.

"There is a construct that's been put in place, and as you know, budgeting for up to the 10-year average has been set. And so that money is within the budgeting construct," Cantor said.

And just like magic, this controversy is apparently over. For those in areas hit by disasters, all that really matters is it looks like federal help will keep coming.

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