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How Do The Feds Manage Disaster Relief?

by Countable | 8.28.17

What’s the story?

Federal disaster relief was a fairly non-controversial issue for many decades, but like many issues that require massive federal funding, disaster relief has become more controversial in the last dozen years.

Understanding the controversy means understanding how the federal government manages disaster relief. Once we get there, then we can have a robust conversation about how, if and why federal disaster relief should be different.

FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is funded through the annual budget (appropriations) process, as an agency of the Department of Homeland Security. Part of that money goes into what is called the Disaster Relief Fund (DSF). This fund is meant to cover non-catastrophic disasters, up to $500 million per event.

The special thing about the DSF funds are that they are "no-year" money, meaning the funds do not expire and balances can be carried over from year to year. Theoretically, this allows FEMA to save money for a rainy day, so to speak, when they have years with less need of funds.

If the number of disasters in a given year exceed the funds in the DSF, then Congress can vote to allocate additional funds to replenish the Fund. These additional allocations are not subject to the Budget Control Act (BCA), meaning they don’t have to be offset by spending cuts, but they are part of the annual appropriations process.

Emergency Funding

Seems oxymoronic, talking about emergency funding for disaster relief, doesn’t it? But major disasters like we’re seeing with Hurricane Harvey, can run well over a hundred billion dollars in federal aid. Hurricane Katrina cost $160 billion. The federal government has yet to find a way to save for that level of catastrophe, so when they happen Congress has to approve supplementary appropriations bills.

These are massive funding bills for disaster recovery and relief efforts. These bills are also not subject to BCA spending caps, which means they do not have to be offset by spending cuts.

Disaster Preparedness

FEMA also funds programs focused on what is called "pre-mitigation disaster preparedness". These programs help communities plan ahead to hopefully reduce destruction and loss of life from future disasters.

Community Development Block Grants

In addition to disaster relief through FEMA, the federal government funds long-term relief and preparedness efforts through the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Community Development Block Grant Program (CDBG).

The CDBG program supplements other funding through FEMA, etc., and particularly helps low-income communities to continue working on full recovery from disasters after the initial crisis period.

National Flood Insurance Program

The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) provides government support for flood insurance in targeted areas. Private insurers won’t cover flood insurance in flood-prone areas on their own, given the potential for significant and repeated losses, so the NFIP backs the insurance up to a specified limit, guaranteeing that the approximately 5 million enrollees can afford to repair or rebuild after a disaster.

The program was self-funded from premiums and other revenue until 2005, when Hurricane Katrina blew the program out of the water, followed by Hurricane Sandy, the 2016 floods in Louisiana and others. The NFIP borrowed from the Treasury to cover losses and is now nearly $25 billion dollars in debt.

Without the NFIP large swaths of coastal areas in the southeast U.S. would be uninhabitable by the majority of residents, who are mostly low-income. The insurance costs would simply be too high.

Emergency Aid for Hurricane Harvey

The first challenge raised by Harvey will be getting an emergency appropriations bill passed. Fingers are already being pointed across the aisle at Texas congress members who voted against emergency funding after Hurricane Sandy.

The congress members, including Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, have defended their stance, arguing that the Hurricane Sandy bill was full of "pork". Opponents -- notable among them, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie -- attacked those voting against the bill at the time for their “callous indifference”.

An aid package for Hurricane Harvey will undoubtedly pass Congress, but the rancor will continue. Should massive emergency disaster packages have to be balanced by spending cuts in other areas? What role should states and local communities play in covering the costs of disaster relief?

Why does it matter?

The 2018 Fiscal Budget

President Trump’s budget proposal included a complete elimination of the Community Block Grant Program’s $3 billion budget, as well as $90 million in cuts to FEMA’s Pre-Mitigation Disaster Grant Program, $667 million to state and local program’s focused on disaster preparedness and $190 million to the National Flood Insurance Program’s Flood Hazard Mapping and Risk Analysis Program, which updates flood maps to keep current with changing realities.

Presidential budgets never pass as they are. Congress always tinkers with them, or rejects certain aspects wholesale. When Congress returns from recess, however, they have very little time to pass an annual budget and raise the debt ceiling before current funding runs out. The size of the Harvey disaster and the questions it poses about ongoing disaster funding will likely change the conversation significantly from what it might have been mere weeks ago.

The National Flood Insurance Program also expires at the end of September. After that, current flood insurance policies would remain in effect. But new policies could not be written, jeopardizing sales of houses with federally backed mortgages, which must carry flood insurance. Congress could simply extend the program as is, or wrestle with changes. The former is more likely, given timing.

What do you think?

Does the current structure of the federal government’s disaster relief funding make sense? How would you change it? Do you support the president’s budget proposals or not? If Congress decides to prioritize disaster funding in the annual budget, should they offset it with spending cuts? If so, what should be cut? What changes would you make to the National Flood Insurance Program?

Tell us what you think in the comments and then use the Take Action button to tell your reps what you think!

— Asha Sanaker

(Photo Credit: Defense.gov / Creative Commons)

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(34)
  • Azrael
    08/28/2017
    ···

    Let's ask the folks still waiting from Katrina and Sandy Let's ask the Texas reps that voted against aid to nj for Sandy We need to help our fellow citizens in Texas We do not need president blowing smoke or handing out a bottle of water as a political photo op

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  • Gail
    08/29/2017
    ···

    Build a border wall or help Houston and other areas prepare for floods? I want you to help our cities prepare, not waste money on a wall!

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  • Dara
    08/29/2017
    ···

    A governments primary purpose is to protect its citizens. FEMA is one of those pieces that protects our citizens. Americans need to stop being cheap and invest in their neighbors and the infrastructure. These investments protect our country. We have bought into that "cut taxes" mentality. We have allowed business people to drive our country, bad move. We need to be investing not cutting. Invest in America, not businesses. They don't care about our country. They care about their pocketbook only. This focus is destroying our nation. We need leaders. Leaders that focus on the country.

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  • Kodiwodi
    08/28/2017
    ···

    In actuality, they don't. The president cut everybody's budget including FEMA's and NOAA's beginning in September. Then he doesn't bother to attend to any of the heads of the agencies in charge except FEMA who's been seated since June. Two weeks ago 45 cuts the infrastructure requirements out of the flood insurance that protects us because well Obama wrote that. He praises a governor who suggested evacuating 6.5 million people on a moments notice but gives no mention to the guy that asked people to stay in place and wait for rescue. Guess who's died so far? Those in their cars. It will come down to partisan infighting over FEMA money. In the mean time, Houstonians will rescue Houstonians and Texans will rescue Texans and the Feds will continue to screw things up.

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  • Annie
    08/28/2017
    ···

    Please acknowledge global warming and the increasing likelihood of catastrophic weather events. Please fund science to study and predict what may occur, mitigation efforts to minimize impact and emergency relief funding to help those in need when disaster occurs. Please also require mandatory insurance coverage for those who choose to live in high risk areas, so the nation at large need not carry these costs.

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  • T
    08/28/2017
    ···

    I am from Houston Texas. To be honest with you, I would vote against the package to help with the Harvey disaster since our Representatives voted against helping the Sandy victims. It is pathetic that we have Representatives in Texas that claim to be Christians and are supported by supposed Christians and vote against everything that helps people. Why do the people of Texas vote for these totally evil people all of the time. Now I am sure our heartless hypocritical Representatives will ask everyone to vote to help us since they seem to think we and them are better than everyone else. I apologize that we have some heartless Representatives in our state. They claim to be pro life but they are only pro birth because they could care less about anyone after they are grown up and are sick, elderly, or poor.

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  • Pat
    08/29/2017
    ···

    Basically I believe many of the natural disasters we are seeing are caused by the changing temperature. I believe that some money should be appropriated for a plan on how to mitigate climate change impact.

    Like (4)
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  • Mary
    08/28/2017
    ···

    The money donated should go to the victims and cities effected, not for the Red Cross executives bonuses and payroll

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  • Rick
    08/29/2017
    ···

    We keep cutting the domestic budget, yet continue to raise the defense budget, often exceeding what the military says it wants. Eventually, there will not be much left for the military to defend,if we keep this up! It seems that our government is geared to run sound bites to keep the masses supporting the politicians so the politicians can keep the fat cats happy by ordering more toys every year. The ones being the most sucker-punched are the ones cheering on the folks who are calmly selling off their way of life. Greed is working well for the well-heeled. It is making hope for a better life impossible for the rest of us.

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  • Gordy
    08/28/2017
    ···

    Disasters are about compassion and helping people at the time it happens then u have to do things for the next one, examples large buildings that can "sway" in an earthquake instead of crumbling,water tight basements and higher water tight foundations for flooding, better planning to get people out of these areas before the event happens better spillways better levies, were going to get better at dealing with these things.

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  • Kathleen
    08/29/2017
    ···

    Simple. Do NOT build the "wall" on the border. Fund disasters. Take care of the folks living in Texas affected by Harvey! Send aid, send help. It's a no brainer.

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  • Jackie
    08/30/2017
    ···

    We need to take care of our fellow Americans. Build no wall. Fund flood insurance and all current programs. Forget tax cuts for rich. No tax cuts for corporations.

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  • Mancos
    08/29/2017
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    I imagine that upon return to Washington there will be considerable discussion (and posturing) regarding budget implications due to the cost of Harvey. How about imposing an income tax on all religious institutions...this could be offset by financial contributions to the community. My issue is that there are a considerable number "sham" churches run by people whose only goal is to bilk money from gullible people and/or the government. Case in point, Joel Osteen and my neighbor, who bought a house down our street and claims it as a church.

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  • T
    08/28/2017
    ···

    I am the one from Houston Texas again and I wanted to thank the Representatives from the other states for voting to help Houston with the Harvey disaster since I know you all aren't heartless and will vote to help us.

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  • Wesley
    08/29/2017
    ···

    The governments job is to make laws that protect the people.

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  • Mary
    08/28/2017
    ···

    I find it interesting that some of the same people who voted down relief for "Sandy" and health insurance are ok with FEMA help and flood insurance for themselves. There is plenty of blame to go around for the mess in Houston. The land is flat, there are no zoning laws, there is an over abundance of hard scape (parking lots, freeways etc) and no place for water to go genius urban planning. Of course they will get help. That is why we have a country. I just hope the voters remember the negligence their elected officials are guilty of and make better choices.

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  • Ticktock
    08/29/2017
    ···

    In recent years those in the Tea Party and Republicans in general did not want to contribute to projects in other parts of the country because, "it didn't effect or benefit them so why should their tax dollars be used to pay for the projects". After Hurricane Sandy Texas Senators voted against additional assistance for New Jersey to assist recovery. Personally I feel that they made there choice when they voted "No" for New Jersey. These two Senators are still in office and Texans supports them so they appear to be happy with the decisions and votes they cast. However, I don't believe that these two Senator's miserly attitude represents all of Texas so we must help the State but we must remember that the cost of recovery is climbing due to global warming whether you believe in it or not.

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  • James
    08/29/2017
    ···

    What Harry teaches us is that people working as individuals and groups can do more in a shorter period of time than all of the centrally planned power of government. We are seeng a citizen army/navy in action each day this goes on. Without this voluntary heroic effort the tragedy of Texas would too much for the Grand planners. Now if the government would get out of the pricing market, people would more quickly have food to eat and houses to live in. But then they wouldn't need the government!

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  • Kay
    09/25/2017
    ···

    Please see that Puerto Rico gets the hurricane relief that it so desperately needs. Do it now! Waiting is inhumane and unconscionable.

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  • Eve
    08/29/2017
    ···

    Climate change will make these scenes more common. Shouldn't federal funding be recover from polluting industries?

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