Analysis: FEMA & federal disaster assistance funding threatened by sequestration, GOP budget cuts


As “Frankenstorm” Hurricane Sandy pummel eastern United States, at least 8 states and the District of Columbia have declared “state of emergencies” and requested assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

As of Monday afternoon, President Barack Obama has authorized FEMA to provide federal disaster aid to states along the eastern seaboard hardest-hit by Hurricane Sandy: Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Delaware, Maryland, and Washington, D.C.

Obama’s executive order would allow FEMA to give direct assistance (i.e. power generators) and federal funding to help states pay for search and rescue operations; emergency medical facilities; food and water distributions; temporary shelters; and other services that are needed to “eliminate or reduce an immediate threat to life, public health, or safety” and “significant damage to improved public or private property through cost-effective measures”.

However, the federal government’s ability to help states will be greatly hampered in the future if sequestration – or the automatic across-the-board cuts to defense and non-defense discretionary spending – takes effect in January.

(The sequester cuts – mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011 – can be averted if Congress passes a $1 trillion deficit reduction plan by the end of the year.)

In fact, FEMA has already suffered a $769 million cut to its Disaster Relief Fund under the Budget Control Act of 2011.

Read more: Analysis: Impact of sequestration on non-defense discretionary spending

If sequestration occurs, FEMA would be forced to layoff another 536 staff members, which would “decimate FEMA’s permanent workforce”, according to Rep. Norman Dicks (D-Wash.), Ranking Member of the House Appropriations Committee.

Dicks noted that the sequester cuts “will significantly hamper FEMA’s preparedness and disaster response capabilities” to help Americans affected by hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, earthquakes, wildfires, and other natural disasters.

Read more: Playing politics with federal disaster aid

FEMA’s funding also faces threats from Republicans. During the GOP primary, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney suggested that the federal government shouldn’t be involved in providing disaster relief assistance to states and that FEMA should be eliminated.

Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that’s the right direction. And if you can go even further and send it back to the private sector, that’s even better,” said Romney at CNN’s GOP presidential debate in New Hampshire. “Instead of thinking in the federal budget what we should cut, we should ask ourselves the opposite question: What should we keep? We should take all of what we’re doing at the federal level and say what are the things we’re doing that we don’t have to do and those things we’ve got to stop doing.”

Furthermore, in recent weeks, Romney has proposed rolling back defense sequester cuts and replacing them with steeper cuts to non-defense discretionary spending. In effect, Romney’s proposal would likely impose deeper cuts to FEMA beyond what sequestration requires.


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