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FEMA budget woes hit communities

Record disaster year drains budget, may delay long-term rebuilding programs

WASHINGTON (UPI) | October 24, 2011

"We may risk having to go back to (emergency-needs funding) and suspending permanent work on all open disasters."

—Craig Fugate

A flood of disasters across the United States have strained FEMA's resources, leaving communities with unfunded long-term reconstruction needs, experts say.

There have been 89 disasters declared in 2011 so far for which aid has been requested from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, a single-year-record, USA Today reported Monday.

Most declarations, made by state governors, are relatively minor, such as damage in Vermont caused by flooding after a spring storm. That storm, which President Barack Obama declared a disaster, caused about $794,000 worth of damage -- less than the "minimum $1 million threshold" guideline set by FEMA for states seeking disaster funds.

"The problem is, nobody ever turns them down," says Joe Allbaugh, FEMA chief from 2001 to 2003, referring to governors who seek disaster funding. "We can't say 'yes' all the time. And if we do, we're just setting ourselves up for no one to take responsibility except FEMA. There is no ability for individual states or local communities to enhance their own capabilities and personnel if you automatically always turn to FEMA."

In late August, FEMA's relief funds dropped so low the agency suspended $550 million in funding for long-term recovery projects nationwide, including rebuilding parts of Louisiana still coming back from 2005's Hurricane Katrina.

"It's frustrating," Mississippi Emergency Management Agency chief Mike Womack says of the funding disruptions. "When people ask, 'Why does it take so long to rebuild communities after disasters?' this is one of the reasons."

Experts say there are other reasons for FEMA's empty coffers. Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton increased the use of emergency declarations for smaller incidents. Also, FEMA has reimbursed states $484 million in snow-removal costs since 1998, even though at one time the agency resisted covering those costs.

Delays in closing out relief cases, which can take more than 10 years in some cases, has also hamstrung the agency. Last year, the Homeland Security inspector general found $500 million sitting unspent in disaster accounts that were at least a decade old that have not yet been closed.

With little money in FEMA's 2012 budget to pay for repairing damage created by Hurricane Irene on the East Coast in September, FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate warned: "We may risk having to go back to [emergency-needs funding] and suspending permanent work on all open disasters."

Copyright 2011 United Press International, Inc. (UPI). Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.

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