FEMA's balancing act

by Heather Miller

The federal emergency assistance agency has no shortage of new disasters for which it has to shell out billions - and a queue of big-money projects stemming from catastrophes of old like Katrina.

Devastating tornadoes and widespread flooding have become common words in weather headlines so far this year, bringing a new group of disasters for FEMA to fund while still being committed by law to the Gulf Coast's rebuilding efforts almost six years after hurricanes Katrina and Rita washed ashore.

According to a report from NPR, the mix of new federally declared emergencies in the Midwest and the South and the billions of dollars worth of recovery projects for past disasters has created a bit of a "cash flow" problem for FEMA, an acronym that needs no further explanation for the hundreds of thousands of Gulf Coast residents who were forced to turn to the federal agency when storms destroyed their livelihoods.

While FEMA is scrambling to funnel money to the towns where hundreds have died from tornadoes and other areas inundated with flood waters, it also is contributing billions to roads, schools and other projects in communities where disasters hit years ago:

Under law, FEMA has the obligation not just to respond to emergencies in the moment but also to help communities rebuild over time.

"There are countless, probably over several hundred what we call open' disasters - that means they have happened over the past 10 to 15 years even - that FEMA is still reconciling the rebuilding of schools or the rebuilding of town halls, city halls, water treatment plants," says Barry Scanlon, a former FEMA executive, "and that can go on for some time."

The challenge for FEMA is funding the long-term projects while keeping enough cash on hand to respond to new disasters. Last summer, for instance, FEMA interrupted work on long-term projects in order to preserve a cushion for current disasters. The stoppage affected several projects in New Orleans, according to Deputy Mayor [Cedric] Grant.

The U.S. House last week approved a measure to appropriate an extra $1 billion for FEMA's Disaster Relief Fund, adding to the already $2.4 billion already sitting in the account. Arguments followed over whether the $1 billion was enough with an already "tough" year and hurricane season just beginning, but FEMA officials told NPR that disaster-ridden towns shouldn't be too worried, as long as the flooded and tornado-struck towns don't send too many more bills to FEMA and so long as the South doesn't experience another Katrina.

But those assurances from FEMA are less encouraging when coupled with the recent prediction that Louisiana faces a 47 percent chance of a hurricane making landfall this year and a 20 percent chance that said hurricane could be a major one.

Read the full NPR article here.