Where Does The FEMA Funding For Harvey And Other Disasters Go? The initial multibillion-dollar federal response is only the beginning of what will be needed to recover from two major storms. Where does it all go?
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With Harvey And Now Irma, Federal Funds And FEMA Are Put To The Test

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With Harvey And Now Irma, Federal Funds And FEMA Are Put To The Test

With Harvey And Now Irma, Federal Funds And FEMA Are Put To The Test

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The U.S. Congress has approved - and President Trump has signed - a disaster relief measure of more than $15 billion. It's to help pay for damage caused by Hurricane Harvey and to prepare for Hurricane Irma. It's a much-needed infusion of cash for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which was in danger of running out of cash this weekend. NPR's Brian Naylor reports on where that money goes.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: As FEMA helps residents of southeast Texas and Louisiana repair after the floods of Harvey and people in Florida prepare for the winds of Irma, it's burning through a lot of cash.

ELIZABETH ZIMMERMAN: FEMA can easily go through $200 million in a day just gearing up, responding to, being prepared for a disaster that's coming or responding to something that's happened.

NAYLOR: That's Elizabeth Zimmerman, who was an associate administrator at FEMA during the Obama administration. The measure approved by Congress this week includes $7.4 billion for FEMA. The agency has already paid out some $150 million to households affected by Harvey. Zimmerman says FEMA can pay households a bit more than $33,000 to help make repairs. Most, she says, get less.

ZIMMERMAN: The average grant in most disasters is closer to $4,000 to $5,000. So it all depends on the level of impact it was to you and to your household.

NAYLOR: FEMA also pays for temporary stays in hotel and motel rooms. Plus, there are the millions of meals and liters of water the agency has provided. The money approved by Congress includes funds for low interest loans for people to make home repairs. Down the road, communities can also seek FEMA money to replace things like damaged fire trucks or community centers. In fact, FEMA is still making grants for previous disasters like Hurricane Sandy.

FEMA has learned from past storms, says Gary Webb, a professor of emergency management and disaster science at the University of North Texas. The agency is more nimble, positioning supplies like ready-to-eat meals and bottled water in advance. And he says it's encouraging citizen participation, like the Cajun Navy, the small boat owners who took it upon themselves to rescue flood-stranded residents of Houston.

GARY WEBB: One of the most notable things that happened in that disaster was not just tolerating citizens coming out with their own boats and rescuing people but the government inviting them in to assist with the response. I think that's a significant advancement in emergency management in this country.

NAYLOR: But Webb says coping with two consecutive disasters will put FEMA and other government agencies to the test.

WEBB: What we're confronting here possibly is an event that tests our capacity to respond at the federal level. So I think, instead of talking about a disaster, we may well be talking about a catastrophe.

NAYLOR: And the money approved by Congress this week is expected to be just the first drop in what could become a very large bucket of federal assistance. Rebuilding from Harvey alone could cost some $180 billion dollars. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

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