WASHINGTON (AP) — The federal government has — for now — enough disaster aid money to deal with the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, but the ongoing storm appears sure to require a multibillion-dollar recovery package as did Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster fund currently contains more than $3 billion, but FEMA on Monday said response to Harvey is “quickly drawing down” disaster balances.
An infusion of more FEMA money will be needed soon, given the magnitude of the storm. The Republican-led Congress is likely to add a package of aid to a temporary spending bill to prevent a government shutdown Oct. 1. Harvey also seems certain to require a larger recovery package as did storms Katrina and Sandy, but it’s way too early to guess how much will be required with floodwaters rising in Houston, people stranded in homes and the nation’s fourth-largest city essentially paralyzed.
The upcoming disaster aid package is yet another item for a packed September agenda in Washington that includes preventing a government shutdown, making sure the government doesn’t default on its debt obligations, and laying the groundwork for overhauling the tax code.
The administration says it will make sure Texas gets what it needs.
“What you’re going to see is the national government and we anticipate the Congress are going to make the resources available to see Texas through the rescue operation, through the recovery,” Vice President Mike Pence told a Houston radio station Monday.
Pence noted that given the “magnitude of the flooding” in the area that “it will be years coming back.” He said 22,000 people had already applied for federal aid but that as “many as a half-a-million people in Texas will be eligible for and applying for financial disaster assistance.”
“We remain very confident that with the reserves and with the support in the Congress, we’ll have the resources that we need,” Pence told KHOU radio.
Democrats promise they’ll help. “Republicans must be ready to join Democrats in passing a timely relief bill that makes all necessary resources available,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
Last week, President Donald Trump threatened a government shutdown if he didn’t get his $1.6 billion request to begin building a U.S.-Mexico border wall. But the need for disaster funding could make a shutdown showdown in September less likely since Trump may want to avoid a battle that could make him look like he’s prioritizing wall funding over flood victims.
FEMA announced Monday that it is prioritizing the Harvey response and holding off on less-urgent payments for earlier disasters to husband its money to make sure there is enough for immediate Harvey-related needs such as debris removal and temporary shelter for tens of thousands of Texans displaced from their homes.
Congress stepped forward with enormous aid packages in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Superstorm Sandy in 2012, though some GOP conservatives — including then-Indiana Rep. Pence — chaffed at the price tag. And White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, who will be responsible for preparing any disaster request for Trump, opposed a 2013 Sandy aid package as a South Carolina congressman, offering a plan to cut elsewhere in the budget to pay for it.
Mulvaney’s May budget release also proposed eliminating community block grants that are likely to be sought by the powerful Texas delegation to help with rebuilding efforts.
Lawmakers provided $110 billion to rebuild the Gulf Coast after Katrina, thanks in part to dogged efforts by Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran, R-Miss. The Bush administration, politically scalded by criticism over its botched response, signed off on the aid.
But New York and New Jersey lawmakers seeking help over Superstorm Sandy encountered stiffer resistance. Many Republicans opposed the full $51 billion aid package, which included a $34 billion amendment by Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., that included grants for housing and other repairs patterned after the Katrina response.
Some hard feelings linger on the part of New York and New Jersey Republicans, who had to battle to win help for their Democratic-leaning states in the bitter aftermath of the 2012 election.
“Despite my TX colleagues refusal to support aid in (hash)SouthJersey time of need, I will support emergency disaster $$ for those impacted,” Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J., wrote on Twitter on Monday.
Texas Republicans overwhelmingly voted against the final Sandy aid bill. The state’s two senators, John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, opposed the aid package along with more than 20 House Republicans representing Texas. Now, many of them are citing additional spending contained in initial drafts of the legislation as the reason.
“They had funding for things as far away from Alaska that wasn’t even touched by Sandy,” said Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, whose district is hard hit by Harvey. “That was not a vote against disaster relief. That was a vote against pork-barrel spending.”
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