FEMA has funds to cover disasters — for now

The Biden administration is sitting on enough emergency funding to cover the “immediate” aftermath of a recent scourge of natural disasters, including the path of destruction left by Hurricane Ida, sources said Thursday.

But while the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has sufficient funds to address the country’s most pressing disaster needs, Congress could be forced to add to the agency’s coffers in the coming weeks and months as the damage costs become more clear. Aside from Hurricane Ida, the U.S. is also grappling with historic wildfires in the West and crippling draughts across much of the Midwest.

Indeed, Louisiana’s entire eight-member delegation — seven Republicans and one Democrat — wasted no time in pressing President Biden for a bump in emergency funding for Ida.

“The full extent of Louisiana’s damages have not yet been determined and will likely not be fully known until after immediate matters of public safety are addressed. Further, Hurricane Ida is not the only disaster to strike Louisiana in the past year,” the Louisiana lawmakers wrote to Biden on Thursday.

“We are writing you now to alert you to the need for Congress to provide emergency supplemental appropriations to address Hurricane Ida and the storms from last year, as was done following Hurricane Katrina,” they added. “Without substantial and robust emergency appropriations from Congress to critical unmet needs accounts like the CDBG-DR program, Louisiana families will continue to languish as a result of these devastating storms.”

That once mundane task — providing emergency federal funds to help local victims of natural disasters — has become increasingly controversial over the last decade, as Congress and the electorate have grown ever-more polarized, and conservatives have found a winning political formula in opposing deficit spending, especially when it comes under a Democratic president.

Appearing with New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D), Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he would fight to ensure all hard-hit regions receive enough federal funding. He spoke earlier Thursday with FEMA Director Deanne Criswell and White House officials.

“We will do everything we can to get all of the federal aid that’s needed. We did this after Sandy, we’ve done it after many other storms,” Schumer said at a news conference in Queens where a mother and son were found dead in their flooded basement home. “I will make sure, as I have in the past, that no stone is left unturned.”

“We know when a disaster hits one area, the whole country comes together and helps. And that’s what we’re going to ask here for New York, just as we are helping in California with the fires and out West with the fires,” he added. 

The reference to Hurricane Sandy, which struck the Northeast in 2012, is both instructive and a warning. At the time, conservative Republicans were bashing then-President Obama over the growing national debt, and many refused to back a massive emergency spending bill, despite pleas from the GOP lawmakers representing the affected regions. The ensuing fight delayed the passage of the aid package for months; most Republicans in both chambers opposed it.

Among the opponents were two members of the Louisiana delegation — Rep. Steve Scalise and then-Rep. Bill Cassidy, now a senator — who are now asking Biden for funds after Ida.

Already, Schumer is tying the devastation from Hurricane Ida — which crashed into Louisiana on Sunday before cutting a deadly path through the northeastern seaboard — to the Democrats’ efforts to combat climate change in their nascent $3.5 trillion package of policy priorities, which they’re hoping to pass this fall.

“Global warming is upon us,” Schumer added. “Woe is us if we don’t recognize these changes are due to climate change. Woe is us if we don’t do something about it quickly — both in building resilient infrastructure and going to clean power.”

Before Ida struck, FEMA had about $41 billion in its disaster relief fund, according to a report on the fund issued last month by the agency. That historically high figure was bolstered by COVID-19 relief packages which provided tens of billions in extra money for the FEMA fund.

“We are confident that we are able to respond to Hurricane Ida and other disasters while fulfilling our mission of helping people before, during and after disasters,” a FEMA spokesperson told The Hill on Thursday.

FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program also has $17 billion on hand to pay for insurance claims. 

But with natural disasters striking nearly every part of the country and the likelihood for more severe weather events spurred by climate change, it’s possible Congress will need to intervene with more emergency funding. And the federal response may transcend FEMA, to include additional funding for affected homeowners, small businesses and local governments grappling with damaged infrastructure.

Hurricane Ida caused catastrophic damage in the Gulf Coast earlier this week, cutting power to roughly 1 million customers in Louisiana, destroying homes and businesses, and leaving thousands struggling to find water, food and gas.

At least eight deaths there have been linked to the hurricane. Biden will survey damage and meet with first responders in Louisiana on Friday.

As the storm moved north, it left a trail of destruction. Tornadoes touched down in Maryland’s capital of Annapolis and in Mullica Hill, N.J., on Tuesday; the Schuylkill River flooded downtown Philadelphia; and thousands of vehicles, homes and businesses were overwhelmed by floodwaters in New York and New Jersey, as were the subway system and Newark Liberty International Airport.

At least 25 people, including a toddler, died from flooding in the New York City region on Wednesday, NBC News reported. Many were living in basement units that had been inundated with flood water.

“We are in a whole new world. Now, let’s be blunt about it. We saw a horrifying storm last night, unlike anything we have seen before,” de Blasio told reporters. “Unfortunately, the price paid by some New Yorkers was horrible and tragic.”

Schumer “will get us the maximum federal aid,” de Blasio added.

“Our homeowners need it; our business owners need it. People are going through hell right now; they need help.”

Updated at 3:28 p.m.

Tags Barack Obama Bill Cassidy Bill de Blasio Charles Schumer Death toll FEMA FEMA flooding hurricane Hurricane Ida Joe Biden Kathy Hochul Louisiana Maryland Mississippi New Jersey New York NFIP Steve Scalise wildfires
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