The Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, is running dangerously low on money for disaster relief just as the historic Hurricane Irma is barreling towards Florida.
The FEMA disaster relief fund has seen its coffers dwindle to a little over $US1 billion over the past few weeks as it dealt with the devastating impact of Hurricane Harvey. Of that money, according to Bloomberg, only $US541 million was “immediately available” as of Tuesday.
Prior to Harvey, the fund had roughly $US3.3 billion remaining, which dwindled to $US2.14 billion on Thursday. Based on the current rate of spending, the disaster relief fund will run out on Friday.
This forces Congress to allocate money back to the FEMA relief fund, but that’s easier said than done.
There can be larger bills that provide money for disasters outside of the relief fund. For instance, Congress allocated $US9.7 billion to the relief fund after Hurricane Sandy and then followed that up with a controversial broader package worth more than $US50 billion a few weeks later.
The disaster relief fund, however, is supposed to address the immediate needs following a storm and is necessary for quick action following Harvey and, soon, Irma.
This means that FEMA could bump into a problem not only with the clean-up in Texas and Louisiana, but also emergency response to Florida and any other areas hit by Irma.
Currently, additional funding for the relief fund is the subject of a bill that just passed the US Senate and would allocate $US7.4 billion in funding to the FEMA disaster relief fund.
While adding more money to the disaster relief fund is a popular bill across both parties, there are some complications over the replenishment.
Currently, the federal government is close to bumping into the debt ceiling — or the cap on the amount of debt the government can hold. According to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, if the additional funds are given to FEMA this would push the US perilously close to the debt ceiling. If the ceiling were breached, this could cause the US to default on some of its debt and trigger a massive economic crisis.
In order to avoid a default while also allocating the needed funds, congressional leaders decided to attach a debt ceiling increase to the Harvey relief package in order for the government to borrow the money necessary to fill FEMA’s coffers.
While both parties agreed to attach the relief to the debt ceiling, Democrats wanted a short-term debt ceiling increase while Republicans wanted something further into the future.
President Donald Trump sided with the Democrats, leading to a package that not only includes the relief funds but also a three-month debt ceiling suspension and funding to keep the government open through mid-December.
While the bill cleared the Senate hurdle, it needs to be voted on in the House. So far one major Republican group, the Republican Study Committee, said it opposed the package as it stands now. Other Republicans in the House also expressed trepidation about the package.
While Democrats and more moderate Republicans should be enough to pass the bill and boost the FEMA fund, if these funds are not allocated in time it could leave the agency hamstrung as it tries to manage the fallout from two massive storms.