Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

The Federal Disaster Relief Fund Is Running Out of Money

The account run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency covering emergency aid for disasters is projected to have a $4.8 billion shortfall by the end of the month. But replenishing the fund is proving to be politically challenging.

Before Hurricane Idalia made landfall, the federal government staged meals, water and other supplies. Afterward, President Joe Biden declared a major disaster, authorizing assistance for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans for uninsured losses, and federal money to help local governments pay for debris removal.

But there’s a money and politics problem.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency account that covers emergency aid for disasters is running out of money.

As of Tuesday morning, the fund had a balance of $3.4 billion.

Even before Idalia formed, before the wildfires in Hawaii, and before the coming Sept. 10 peak of the Atlantic hurricane season, the Disaster Relief Fund was projected to have a $4.8 billion shortfall by the end of the month.

Fixing the problem is infinitely more difficult because of politics. So, like a household juggling more bills than it can afford — and suddenly facing an emergency car repair — FEMA is juggling its obligations, paying some and postponing others.

Unlike the unexpected car repair, however, the shortfall in the Disaster Relief Fund has been widely known for months. The estimated point at which it goes into the red has repeatedly shifted.

In April, FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell told the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security that the fund would be out of money after July.

In June, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and U.S. Rep. Jared Moskowitz, D-Parkland, introduced bills that would provide $11.5 billion to shore up the fund. Republicans who control the U.S. House and Democrats who control the U.S. Senate took no action.

In August, the Biden administration asked Congress to appropriate $12 billion for the Disaster Relief Fund as part of a package of what Office of Management and Budget Director Shalanda called “critical needs” in a letter to House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.

Young told McCarthy the money is needed so “FEMA can continue to support critical activities in communities that have dealt with or are currently dealing with disasters, while also maintaining sufficient preparedness to respond to future catastrophic events — preparedness that will be especially important as we enter peak hurricane season.”

Political Winds

There has been finger-pointing however — something Moskowitz said is both wrong and frustrating. As a former director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, Moskowitz has experience in disaster recovery and FEMA funding.

“Disaster relief should never be a partisan issue. When we have people who have lost loved ones or their homes, Washington has to be able to show government can still function and make sure the professionals at FEMA have the resources they need,” Moskowitz said via email, noting the multiple disasters since he introduced the funding bill.

“It’s incredibly frustrating that we saw this funding issue coming from a mile away and Congress was not proactive about it before going on recess. We knew we were entering hurricane season, but the House was too dysfunctional to get a bill passed. Too much time has been wasted, and replenishing the Disaster Relief Fund has to be a top priority now,” he said.

On Tuesday, as Idalia was approaching Florida, U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., said it was President Joe Biden’s fault that Congress hadn’t acted on replenishing the disaster fund.

“Unfortunately, while I’ve spent the months leading up to this storm fighting to make sure the federal government shows up, President Biden and politicians in Washington have been playing games with FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund and insisting that this critical domestic aid be tied to foreign aid for Ukraine. We’ve had enough with Washington playing politics and demand that Congress does what’s right for American families, starting with ensuring our federal government has all the resources it needs to show up after disasters, now and in the future,” Scott said in a statement.

Besides FEMA money, the Biden administration’s $40 million supplemental funding request includes $24 billion in additional military, financial and humanitarian aid for Ukraine, and $4 billion for immigration and border security.

When Congress returns from its summer break next week, Scott said he would introduce a different proposal: $12.5 billion for the Disaster Relief Fund plus politically popular spending including grants for citrus growers and others in agriculture, tax relief for people impacted by previous hurricanes, and funding to repair previously damaged military bases.

He said he would be “demanding an immediate vote” as he vowed to “not allow Washington to continue playing games with disaster aid and the lives of those needing our help.”

In response to a reporter’s question on Wednesday, Biden predicted the disaster funding ultimately would be worked out, but signaled he was prepared to blame Republicans if they blocked his funding request.

“I’m going to point out why. How could we not respond?,” he said.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston, a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee, said she is trying to forge a bipartisan consensus on the disaster relief money.

“I am working on a supplemental relief solution that reaches across the aisle and comes to the rescue of red and blue states needing real help following natural disasters and severe weather and the obvious impacts of a warming climate, including Florida,” Wasserman Schultz said via email.

And she suggested Scott’s declaration could have its own political subtext in the context of overall government funding. Avoiding a government shutdown when the new federal fiscal year begins on Oct. 1 will likely require passage of a so-called continuing resolution that maintains spending at current levels.

“I also hope his effort is not a cynical attempt to avoid voting for a continuing resolution that keeps our government functioning for all Americans. We cannot pretend that an emergency supplemental funding bill will be a total solution while shutting the government down without a CR,” Wasserman Schultz said.

FEMA Juggling

Meanwhile, FEMA is juggling its bills.

Criswell said at a White House news briefing this week she has directed the agency to implement “immediate needs funding” and prioritize life-saving efforts.

A Congressional Research Service report said that means the agency “temporarily puts on hold funding for long-term recovery projects and hazard mitigation projects.”

On the CBS “Face the Nation” program on Aug. 20, Criswell outlined a scenario in which the agency “will start to move some of our recovery projects and delay them until the next fiscal year so we can assure that we have enough funding to support any responses to do life-saving, life-sustaining needs.”

FEMA’s public affairs office did not respond to questions this week about the implications of the shortfall.

Criswell said at another White House briefing that the “immediate needs” move means “we have plenty of funding to be able to support our ongoing efforts in Maui, as well as this event, to include Florida, Georgia, South Carolina as needed.”

Eventually, FEMA will be able to catch up on its bills when it gets additional money in the next federal budget. But the current scenario could be repeated, with a cash crunch next summer.

Criswell said if there’s a government shutdown at the start of the new budget year on Oct. 1, personnel paid for through the Disaster Relief Fund wouldn’t be furloughed “so they’re able to continue operating and supporting all of the immediate efforts and lifesaving efforts that continue to go on.”

©2023 South Florida Sun Sentinel. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
TNS delivers daily news service and syndicated premium content to more than 2,000 media and digital information publishers.
Special Projects