FEMA aid to victims of Hurricane Irene could be limited

The Takeaway

Photo of Hurricane Irene (Image by NASA)

Story from The Takeaway. Listen to audio above for full report.

The United States has been devastated by disasters this year -- tornadoes in the Midwest, droughts in Texas, wildfires in the Southwest and a hurricane on the East Coast. All this has left the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) coffers running thin. The agency recently stated that it had only $800 million to $1 billion left to help disaster victims.

"It's actually not a lot of money," John Copenhaver, former FEMA regional director, told The Takeaway. "The kind of disasters that FEMA is asked to respond to are the ones... that have declared by the President to be national disasters -- disasters with huge impact," he said. "They typically tend to be very costly."

With all that money being spent, FEMA could get caught up in the budget debate that continues to rage in Washington. That would be extremely unfortunate, according to Copenhaver, because "the people who would be caught in the middle are the people who've been impacted by these disasters."

Congress isn't currently in session, but Jordan Fabian, political editor at Univision, told The Takeaway that House Republicans are demanding that any extra funding for FEMA would need to be offset by spending cuts in other places. He says that Democrats are pushing back against that idea.

The debate "sets up a much larger argument of to what extent is our legislative branch going to be able to dictate to FEMA exactly where and how they spend their money," according to Copenhaver. FEMA has announced that it will begin focusing on immediate needs funding, rather than more long term disaster relief. Copenhaver hopes this is a short-term problem. He says, "I hope that we can recover our senses and start focusing on what we really need to focus on, and that is to help build resiliency at the community level."

"Disaster relief funding in the past has never really been subject to partisan politics," according to Fabian, but it looks like it's turning that way now.

More about Hurricane Irene:

> Irene floods Philadelphia, New Jersey and Vermont

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"The Takeaway" is a national morning news program, delivering the news and analysis you need to catch up, start your day, and prepare for what's ahead. The show is a co-production of WNYC and PRI, in editorial collaboration with the BBC, The New York Times Radio, and WGBH.