The U.S. Department of Transportation today announced more than $1.5 billion in awards to states and localities to help them defray the cost of repairing infrastructure damaged by natural disasters.

The funding was provided in legislation passed by Congress back in November that funded DOT for the 2012 fiscal year and provided a stopgap funding for other federal agencies. Much of the money provided by the emergency relief covers damage done by Hurricane Irene, which hit the northeast last year.

The funding will go to a total of 30 states, plus American territories and federal land management agencies. 
“States and communities can rely on the federal government during these critical times,” said Federal Highway Administrator Victor Mendez in a statement. “When disaster strikes, the (Transportation) Department will do all it can to provide help to the affected areas.” 
The largest of the awardees include California, which gets a combined $326.4 million to cover damage by several disasters in the 2000s. North Dakota gets 276.1 million for areas affected by flooding last spring. And Vermont gets $134.6 million to repair damage done by spring flooding and Hurricane Irene (see the full list of recipients here.)
The money reimburses states for repairs and replacement of highways, roads, and bridges. It can also fund debris removal and other immediate steps the states had to take to clear affected roadways.

States are allowed to begin emergency repairs immediately -- rather than waiting for the federal funds to come through -- in order to encourage them to quickly restore traffic flow and prevent further damage.

The program doesn't have hard deadlines, so states can apply for funding years after the damage and repairs have occurred. The Government Accounting Office last year criticized that strategy, arguing that it makes it difficult for federal officials to anticipate future costs. The GAO has also said the Emergency Relief Program is mired with missing and incomplete documentation.