Democratic leaders say FEMA has enough cash for Sandy recovery

As leaders assess the high cost of damage from Hurricane Sandy, officials in both parties say the Federal Emergency Management Agency has ample funding for disaster relief — at least for now.

FEMA’s coffers are nearly full because the storm struck at the beginning of the fiscal year, which started Oct. 1. 

ADVERTISEMENT
On top of more than $1 billion left over in the Disaster Relief Fund from last year, Congress has appropriated $7.1 billion for fiscal 2013. President Obama’s decision to make disaster declarations in New York and New Jersey — in addition to emergency declarations in eight other states and the District of Columbia — allows local officials to access those funds immediately.

Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), New York’s senior senator and the third-ranking Democrat in the Senate, told reporters Tuesday that FEMA administrator Craig Fugate had assured him the agency had enough money for the initial response to Sandy.

“He says in terms of their immediate needs, there’s no shortage of dollars,” Schumer said in a briefing with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I) and other local officials.


In a press conference call Tuesday afternoon, Fugate reiterated that FEMA had enough cash on hand. 

“I’ve got the resources that FEMA needs to respond,” he said. 

“We will assess what the impacts of the storm are and determine if additional funding may be needed in the future. But as it is, both with the budget from this fiscal year and the funds that carried over from last fiscal year, [we] are going to provide all of the funds we need for the response, as well as continuing to recover from all of the previous open disasters.”

Government officials in New York, New Jersey and elsewhere in the Northeast have warned that the damage their states sustained is “unprecedented,” particularly to mass transit systems, which have already suffered from cost overruns in recent years. 

“This is not going to be a short-term situation,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) said at a separate briefing. “This is going to be a long-term recovery and reconstruction effort, and that’s how we’re going to have to think about it.”

Cuomo said Tuesday he expected the federal government to reimburse the state for the “overwhelming majority” of state costs. The recovery effort, he said, is going to be “very, very expensive.”

Schumer said the president had told him personally that he was giving “aggressive orders to give New York whatever it needs.”

“I believe that our country will stand behind us when we seek reimbursement funds that are needed,” Schumer said.

Funding for disaster relief has not escaped the partisan rancor in Washington in recent years. 

A political fight over FEMA funding broke out in 2011 when Hurricane Irene struck just as the agency’s coffers were running dry. 

Budget-slashing Republicans initially demanded that new disaster aid be offset with spending cuts elsewhere. The standoff ended only when FEMA determined it could last until the end of the fiscal year without an emergency bump in funds.

While the presidential campaigns scrapped events in Sandy’s immediate wake, the liberal group Americans United for Change circulated articles that highlighted Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s push to limit the federal role in disaster response.

Fugate on Tuesday steered clear of questions with political undertones, such as how FEMA would deal with less federal funding in the future.

“I deal with the real world, not the future world,” he said.

Cuomo and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) said it would take days to fully assess the damage from the storm, but the initial descriptions they offered were stark. Cuomo said the damage to New York City was “unlike this city has seen in decades, if ever.” 

Water rose to the ceiling in one subway station in Lower Manhattan, he said. A 40-foot boat landed across several Metro North regional rail lines. 

Christie said the devastation on the Jersey Shore was “unthinkable” and that there was “major damage on each and every one of New Jersey’s rail lines.”

A Republican aide on the House Appropriations Committee said Tuesday a supplemental spending bill for FEMA would not be needed “right now.” 

Separately, a Democratic leadership aide said emergency legislation was unlikely to be needed during the lame-duck congressional session after next week’s election.

But another Democratic leadership aide said a battle over disaster aid could re-emerge later in the fiscal year if Republicans demanded that new relief be offset with spending cuts elsewhere in the budget. 

“If past is prologue, then I wouldn’t rule it out,” the aide said. “Republicans have clearly been loath to respond to disasters.”

—Mike Lillis contributed.