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Flirting with disaster: FEMA funding may falter

By Staff | Sep 29, 2011

The latest financial face-off in Washington is over a government function near and dear to coastal hearts: disaster relief. But the scope – and the potential impact – of this battle could extend far from the nation’s shorelines… and perhaps to the heart of what most people expect government to do.

The immediate dilemma is disasters – plenty of them, at this point affecting every corner of this country. It’s faster to name the states that have not had a disaster declaration this year than all the others (42 so far this year) who have endured snow, storms, floods and fires. In all, 2011 has seen a record 84 major disaster declarations so far, with 10 of those surpassing the billion dollar mark in total damages.

These disasters have been disastrous for FEMA – the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is responsible for spearheading the federal disaster response. The cost of responding to these disasters has drained FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund to the point of triggering a shutdown of disaster response efforts. This would be troublesome enough in typical times, but now some in Congress are attempting to have emergency disaster relief funds tied to an appropriations stop-gap bill to fund the government through mid-November. This brinksmanship has snarled much-needed FEMA funding in a new round of political posturing.

The Rs and Ds (and the House and Senate) are arguing not only over the amount of disaster funding, but whether such funding must be offset by cuts in spending elsewhere in the federal budget. This has triggered the threat (again) of a potential government shutdown should a compromise not be reached by the start of the new federal fiscal year Oct. 1.

Obscured in the rhetoric are a few salient facts:

If FEMA funding falters, the agency’s disaster response efforts will begin to shut down — even as people struggle to recover from flooding, fires and other natural disasters that have made this a record-setting year. This will strand a lot of people with no other option left to help put their lives back together.

States and regions have been hit with a double disaster of their own: More crises with less money, more shortfalls with less ways to make them up. This hampers emergency response efforts in the best of times, and has made a bad situation worse for many in the wake of a serious natural disaster.

Often tied into this disaster relief funding is money to spend on an infrastructural response – levee repair, beach restoration, better fire management, etc. This undercuts a system that, often, mitigates disaster and thus the federal funds needed to pay for its recovery. If these protections are not repaired in a timely fashion, the next disaster could be much worse (or it will take less of a catastrophe to create more of a problem), as those weakened levees, sand-starved beaches or tinder-dry forests lack the resilience to withstand another hit.

For coastal areas facing the prospect of a hurricane (hey, the season isn’t over yet), a numbing nor’easter or wave after wave of battering Pacific storms, losing the FEMA cushion is a sobering thought – and the lack of Corps funding to rebuild any protective infrastructure would be a frightening specter. Coastal communities could be on their own if federal funding fades and state spending remains sparse.

However, the scope of disaster funding need this year makes it clear this is far from a coastal problem. It’s a national one, which demands a national solution. We hope Congress is up to that challenge, and will not allow a political disaster to compound the catastrophe of a natural calamity on the lives of America’s citizens.

(Founded in 1926, the ASBPA promotes the integration of science, policies and actions that maintain, protect and enhance the coasts of America. For more information on the ASBPA, visit www.asbpa.org, Facebook or www.twitter.com/asbpa.)