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New Storms, Prior Disasters Burden FEMA's Budget

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New Storms, Prior Disasters Burden FEMA's Budget

New Storms, Prior Disasters Burden FEMA's Budget

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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And as the government copes with the recent plague of flooding and tornados in the Midwest and South, it's still responding to disasters of earlier years. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, continues to fund rebuilding projects related to Hurricane Katrina and other major storms in the past.

As NPR's Brian Naylor reports, this has caused some cash flow problems at the agency.

BRIAN NAYLOR: In Laurel, Mississippi, Jones County emergency management director Don McKinnon, recently presided over a groundbreaking for an emergency hurricane shelter. It's designed to protect up to a thousand people at a time in winds of up to 250 miles per hour.

Mr. DON MCKINNON (Director, Jones County Emergency Management Agency): We always have people evacuating from the coast, from our coast, from Louisiana. And we can't leave them in a car in a parking lot or someplace, so we just never felt like we had a place that we felt comfortable with, trying to shelter these folks while they were in our care. This is going to meet that need.

NAYLOR: The two and a half million dollar price tag for the structure is being picked up by FEMA. In New Orleans, deputy mayor Cedric Grant says there's quite a bit of reconstruction still under way in his city with funds provided by FEMA.

Deputy Mayor CEDRIC GRANT (New Orleans, Louisiana): They've provided some funding for pools and recreation centers and criminal justice facilities. It reaches the gamut.

NAYLOR: Throughout the Gulf Coast, FEMA is financing fire stations, sewers, roads and schools as the area continues to rebuild from the destructive storms of 2005.

Craig Fugate is the agency's administrator.

Mr. CRAIG FUGATE (Administrator, FEMA): We're still, in many cases, even further back than Katrina, still rebuilding and paying for cost of recovery operations. So, these are longer term commitments that are ongoing in addition to the most recent disasters.

NAYLOR: Under law, FEMA has the obligation, not just to respond to emergencies in the moment, but to help communities rebuild over time.

Barry Scanlon is a former FEMA executive who says the agency has a lot on its plate.

Mr. BARRY SCANLON: There are countless, probably over several hundred what we call open disasters. That means that they have happened over the past 10, 15 years even, that FEMA is still reconciling the rebuilding of schools or the rebuilding of town halls, city halls, water treatment plants, and that can go on for some time.

NAYLOR: The challenge for FEMA is funding the long-term projects while keeping enough on hand to respond to new disasters. Last summer, for instance, FEMA interrupted work on long-term projects in order to preserve a cushion for current disasters. The stoppage affected several projects in New Orleans, according to Deputy Mayor Grant.

Dep. Mayor GRANT: As I recall, there was maybe about a 90-day period where we were in some design. And so, you know, may have affected us as a small bump in the road, but quite honestly, we worked through that.

NAYLOR: Last week, the House approved a bill which contains an extra billion dollars for FEMA's Disaster Relief Fund, which Republicans and some Democrats say the Obama administration underfunded in its budget proposal. There is currently some $2.4 billion in the account.

Former FEMA official Dan Kaniewski says people in disaster-struck areas shouldn't worry. The fund isn't going to run dry.

Mr. DAN KANIEWSKI (Former FEMA Official): It's more of a cash flow issue. It's not something that we should lay awake at night and say, oh my God; the disaster relief fund is going to be empty for these long-term projects.

NAYLOR: In fact, FEMA Director Fugate says should the disaster relief fund fall below a billion dollars, the long-term projects such as those related to Katrina will again be put on hold so that money is available for immediate needs.

It's already been a tough year, and officials are expecting an active hurricane season. Still, Fugate is optimistic.

Mr. FUGATE: We think that, based upon what we've seen so far and knowing what we have in the pipeline for things that are going to come due, where states are going to seek reimbursement, we don't see an immediate shortfall and we see really nothing that limits our response capabilities through this hurricane season.

NAYLOR: That assumes the bills for this spring's tornadoes and floods don't rise too high and we don't see another storm like Katrina.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: And flooding continues to affect communities this day in the Midwest. Yesterday, authorities ordered 600 residents of Hamburg, Iowa to evacuate their homes. They were in danger after the Missouri river breached a nearby levee. Iowa state officials deployed a Black Hawk helicopter to drop thousand-pound sandbags on the levee because it was too dangerous to send in ground crews.

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