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With Harvey And Now Irma, Federal Funds And FEMA Are Put To The Test

Sep 8, 2017
Originally published on September 9, 2017 2:06 pm

Updated at 10:45 a.m. ET

The disaster relief bill given final approval by Congress on Friday can't come too soon for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Without a new injection of funds, officials said FEMA's cash box would be empty as early as this weekend, right around the time that Hurricane Irma is scheduled to slam into southern Florida, while southeast Texas and Louisiana are still drying out from Hurricane Harvey.

The agency can "easily go through $200 million in a day," according to Elizabeth Zimmerman, a former associate administrator at FEMA, "just gearing up, responding and being prepared for a disaster that's coming."

There is at least one more hurricane on the immediate horizon, and it isn't even the peak of the season yet. The agency is also providing funds to help fight wildfires in the West.

Zimmerman says FEMA's disaster relief fund is an annual appropriation of roughly $6 billion. It's based on a rolling average of disaster costs over the last 10 years.

The $15.25 billion measure approved by Congress includes:

That's likely to be just the first drop in the bucket. Harvey is projected to cost as much as $180 billion.

Where does all that money go?

FEMA has already paid out some $150 million to households. People needing immediate cash for food or shelter can get $500 deposited into their bank accounts. The agency will also make grants for home repairs, with a maximum of $33,300, although Zimmerman says the average grant is closer to $3,000 to $4,000. FEMA also pays for hotel and motel rooms. Plus there are the millions of meals and liters of water the agency has provided.

The money passed by Congress includes funds for storm survivors who qualify for low-interest loans to repair their homes through the Small Business Administration, which also lends money to, yes, small businesses.

Down the road, communities can also seek FEMA money to pay for things like firetrucks or community centers that have been damaged or destroyed. In fact, FEMA is still making grants for previous years' disasters, like Hurricane Sandy.

Lessons learned from past disasters

FEMA has learned from its experiences with past storms, says Gary Webb, professor and chair of emergency management and disaster science at the University of North Texas. "The most significant improvement is that FEMA has become a more nimble agency," he says, in terms of positioning assets such as food and bottled water before a disaster strikes.

He gives the agency high marks for working with and encouraging citizen-led efforts such as the "Cajun Navy," the small-boat owners who took it upon themselves to travel to Texas from Louisiana and elsewhere to rescue flood-stranded residents of Houston and the surrounding area after Harvey.

"I think that's a significant advancement in emergency management," Webb says.

He also says there are lessons to be learned from Harvey. Public officials need to "really think seriously about the evacuation decision-making process," Webb says, citing the conflicting advice given by state and local officials in Texas in advance of the storm.

With Irma hitting on the heels of Harvey, Webb says FEMA is faced with having to manage two very large natural disasters at the same time. He says the federal definition of a disaster is something that has exceeded the capacity of local governments to respond. A second major storm in a little over two weeks "tests our capacity to respond at the federal level. Instead of talking about a disaster," Webb says, "we may be talking about a catastrophe."

And former FEMA associate administrator Zimmerman says, "My heart goes out to my former peers," whose work this hurricane season has been nonstop.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The U.S. Congress has approved - and President Trump has signed - a disaster relief measure of more than $15 billion. It's to help pay for damage caused by Hurricane Harvey and to prepare for Hurricane Irma. It's a much-needed infusion of cash for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which was in danger of running out of cash this weekend. NPR's Brian Naylor reports on where that money goes.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: As FEMA helps residents of southeast Texas and Louisiana repair after the floods of Harvey and people in Florida prepare for the winds of Irma, it's burning through a lot of cash.

ELIZABETH ZIMMERMAN: FEMA can easily go through $200 million in a day just gearing up, responding to, being prepared for a disaster that's coming or responding to something that's happened.

NAYLOR: That's Elizabeth Zimmerman, who was an associate administrator at FEMA during the Obama administration. The measure approved by Congress this week includes $7.4 billion for FEMA. The agency has already paid out some $150 million to households affected by Harvey. Zimmerman says FEMA can pay households a bit more than $33,000 to help make repairs. Most, she says, get less.

ZIMMERMAN: The average grant in most disasters is closer to $4,000 to $5,000. So it all depends on the level of impact it was to you and to your household.

NAYLOR: FEMA also pays for temporary stays in hotel and motel rooms. Plus, there are the millions of meals and liters of water the agency has provided. The money approved by Congress includes funds for low interest loans for people to make home repairs. Down the road, communities can also seek FEMA money to replace things like damaged fire trucks or community centers. In fact, FEMA is still making grants for previous disasters like Hurricane Sandy.

FEMA has learned from past storms, says Gary Webb, a professor of emergency management and disaster science at the University of North Texas. The agency is more nimble, positioning supplies like ready-to-eat meals and bottled water in advance. And he says it's encouraging citizen participation, like the Cajun Navy, the small boat owners who took it upon themselves to rescue flood-stranded residents of Houston.

GARY WEBB: One of the most notable things that happened in that disaster was not just tolerating citizens coming out with their own boats and rescuing people but the government inviting them in to assist with the response. I think that's a significant advancement in emergency management in this country.

NAYLOR: But Webb says coping with two consecutive disasters will put FEMA and other government agencies to the test.

WEBB: What we're confronting here possibly is an event that tests our capacity to respond at the federal level. So I think, instead of talking about a disaster, we may well be talking about a catastrophe.

NAYLOR: And the money approved by Congress this week is expected to be just the first drop in what could become a very large bucket of federal assistance. Rebuilding from Harvey alone could cost some $180 billion dollars. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

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