A Budget Target, Disaster Money Is Secure For Now
GUY RAZ, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz. The FEMA disaster relief fund is once again flush with cash, after getting precariously close to zero last week. The fund received a quick boost of more than two and a half billion dollars as part of the temporary measure Congress just passed to keep the government running. But as NPR's Tamara Keith reports now, that money may not last very long.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: There have been a lot of disasters this year: flooding in the Midwest, tornados in Missouri and Alabama, Tropical Storm Lee, and Hurricane Irene.
(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)
KEITH: A month and a half later, several large machines are still working to dry out the first floor of the Schoharie County Office Building in the village of Schoharie, New York. There's also water in the basement. Harold Vroman is chairman of the County Board of Supervisors.
HAROLD VROMAN: This water you see 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.
KEITH: Irene's remnants caused major flooding, wrecking homes, damaging roads and bridges. In the cute little downtown, nearly all of the businesses are still boarded up. Vroman says the county office building is also closed.
VROMAN: I don't foresee being in the bottom of this building. It's going to be almost a year by the time they get everything fixed. You're looking down the road for houses and people, businesses two to three years, five years even. It's going to take a long time.
KEITH: A long time and a lot of help from the federal government.
ALICIA TERRY: Without that assistance, we might just as well become a ghost town.
KEITH: Alicia Terry is director of planning for the county. She's been keeping a close eye on Congress, which recently almost shut the government down in a fight over how to pay for disaster funding.
TERRY: 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.
KEITH: The estimated cost to repair Schoharie County's infrastructure alone is as much as a full year's budget for the county: $73 million. And this kind of damage is repeated in dozens of counties across the country, meaning the $2.65 billion Congress just added isn't going to last long.
Louisiana Democrat Mary Landrieu chairs the Senate subcommittee that sets FEMA's budget.
SENATOR MARY LANDRIEU: Based on our understanding of just disasters that have already occurred, we think we might be able to make it through January, the end of December, January.
KEITH: The Obama administration has indicated at least another 4 billion will be needed to get through fiscal year 2012. So at this point, given the recent fight over disaster funding, you might be thinking, oh, no, here comes another one. But maybe not.
Hal Rogers is a Republican from Kentucky and heads the House Appropriations Committee.
REPRESENTATIVE HAL ROGERS: There will be roughly around $11 billion that's available for disaster relief without being offset.
KEITH: Translation: 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.
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? Senator Landrieu, a Democrat, offers an explanation.
LANDRIEU: I wasn't looking for a fight. It all started when Representative Cantor just called for offsets for these disasters. And I said, no, that is not the way we've done it in the past.
KEITH: When asked about whether his members would require offsets for additional FEMA money this fiscal year, House majority leader Eric Cantor pointed back to the debt limit deal.
REPRESENTATIVE ERIC CANTOR: 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.
KEITH: And just like magic, the controversy is apparently over. For those in areas hit by disasters, all that really matters is it looks like the federal help will keep coming.
Tamara Keith, NPR News, the Capitol.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.