WASHINGTON D.C. -- Sen. Roy Blunt is confident the Federal Emergency Management Agency has enough money available to help the state recover from the Joplin tornado, the Southeast Missouri floods and other natural disasters.
Senate colleagues don't sound nearly so convinced.
During a hearing of a subcommittee of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in Washington last week, Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Arkansas, laid out some statistics. Fifty-five major disasters proclaimed by the Obama administration so far this year have left the FEMA emergency operations budget on course for a $3 billion shortfall.
What's more, President Obama has included just $1.8 billion in his budget request for the fund in the next fiscal year's budget. The fund has been bailed out once already this year with an $850 million influx. Currently, the fund has $1.2 billion available, and FEMA deputy director Richard Serino told the Senate panel that he expects that to dip below $1 billion early in August. Serino said the agency is preparing to use the fund for life saving operations only.
"We'll put on hold funding some of our other long-term projects, public buildings, public roads that are on down the line, until we get another budget," Serino said.
Serino was not specific about what projects might be put on hold. Still, Serino said the agency's response to emergencies will not be predicated on the amount of cash it has on hand.
The uncertain nature of emergency funding does not faze Blunt, a Republican. He said he expects a full amount of help from FEMA for cleanup operations in Joplin for the aftermath of the May 22 tornado and the rest of the state following floods along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.
"No question that Joplin is one of the worst tornado disasters in the history of the country both in loss of life and property," Blunt said. "The Missouri flooding, the opening of Birds Point ... all exceed what would be seen as a normal spring and summer disaster."
Both Pryor and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, called into question the use of FEMA and its emergency funds at the current rate.
"The impact of repetitive disasters threatens the fiscal health of state and local governments," Pryor said. "We can't rely on the federal government to fill the gaps left by insufficient state and local funds."
Paul said Congress and FEMA need to take a look at how and when the agency responds to emergencies.
"We get involved in so many of these routine storms that maybe we don't have enough money when we have truly catastrophic storms," said Paul. "It's kind of hard to be against declaring a disaster, so we always declare a disaster, and I think not every disaster is created equally."
"The question is can the federal government keep doing it, does the federal government have enough money to keep supplying endless amounts of money through FEMA?"
Blunt agreed with Paul that the government does seem to be too quick to declare emergencies in the aftermath of seasonal storms and floods.
"We need to be sure that any time anything happens we immediately look to the governor and say 'Why haven't you called for a federal disaster yet?'" Blunt said. "We need to be sure that we're doing the right things with disasters and when they occur, whatever funding is necessary is available for that because it wasn't spent on things that weren't as significant."
Pryor advocates mitigation as a way to cut costs. He said investments in storm shelters and better building practices in tornado prone areas and the continued buy out of land that frequently floods could help FEMA in the long run.
Blunt agrees but said in the short term, attitudes may need to change. Paul cited numbers that show federal disasters have increased from Ronald Reagan's term where 28 were declared his entire 4 year term to the current 55 this year, before the start of hurricane season.
"I don't think it hurts at all to evaluate the process of why there'd be so many more disasters declared under President Obama than under past presidents," Blunt said.