FEMA Confronts Financial Uncertainty Heading Into Active Hurricane Season

Jun 1, 2017
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Today's the start of the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season. The federal government is predicting there'll be at least 11 named storms, of which up to four could become major hurricanes. And it's urging people who live along the coast to have a plan and emergency supplies. But some people are asking whether the government itself has everything it needs to respond to a natural disaster. From Miami, NPR's Greg Allen reports.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: You remember last hurricane season. In early October, Matthew slammed into Haiti as a powerful Category 4 hurricane, killing more than 500. After that, it swept up the U.S. Atlantic coast, pounded communities like St. Augustine, destroying dozens of homes, flooding the historic downtown and washing away parts of the coastline. Eight months after the storm, St. Augustine and surrounding communities are still rebuilding. The emergency manager of St. John's County, Linda Stoughton, says federal support for that effort is vital.

LINDA STOUGHTON: We understand disasters are local. We responded, but we are going to need federal funding to make St. John's County back to where it was.

ALLEN: But this year, as hurricane season gets underway, key federal agencies state and local governments and the public depend on don't have leaders. Nearly five months after Donald Trump was sworn into office, NOAA, the agency that oversees the National Hurricane Center, is still without an administrator, as is the agency that responds to disasters - FEMA. In the case of FEMA - the Federal Emergency Management Agency - the Trump administration has named the former head of Alabama's Emergency Management Agency, Brock Long, to the position. FEMA is part of the Department of Homeland Security. After touring the National Hurricane Center in Miami today, DHS Secretary John Kelly said Long should be confirmed as early as next week. And he's not concerned about FEMA's ability to respond to disasters.

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JOHN KELLY: We are ready to assist any state, any catastrophe, certainly Florida in the case of Florida hurricanes. So we're ready to go with it. FEMA is ready, leaning forward. DHS is as well.

ALLEN: FEMA's last head, Craig Fugate, who stepped down in January, says day-to-day operations at the agency are in good hands, so he's not concerned about a temporary vacuum at the top.

CRAIG FUGATE: The bigger challenge is - longer term - is setting the tone and direction of the agency, being able to represent the agency in the policy discussions at the highest levels of government.

ALLEN: With no permanent administrator in place for those discussions, FEMA is one of the agencies targeted for significant cuts under President Trump's proposed budget. The budget eliminates funding for an ongoing effort to improve and redraw the nation's flood maps. In addition, a FEMA program that helps states and communities take long-term measures to reduce losses from disasters would be cut by more than 60 percent. Rachel Cleetus, a climate policy expert with the Union of Concerned Scientists, says with these proposed budget cuts, the Trump administration is sending the wrong signal.

RACHEL CLEETUS: Well, I think this is a very harmful approach that's essentially saying that states are on their own, communities are on their own, in terms of responding and recovering from these disasters. And the reality is states just don't have the budgets.

ALLEN: The Trump budget would cut another important source of recovery funds. The Department of Housing and Urban Development provides money that helps communities rebuild after FEMA has moved on. The Trump budget cuts that $3 billion fund to zero. Cleetus says the HUD funding has been a lifesaver to communities around the country.

CLEETUS: It was certainly used after Katrina. It was used after Sandy. Most recently, it was used last year after Hurricane Matthew.

ALLEN: As alarming as she finds it, Cleetus acknowledges that President Trump's budget is unlikely to be adopted. Congress, not the president, determines how money is allocated. The agency, its mission and funding have broad bipartisan support among members of Congress from communities where FEMA has helped pick up the pieces. Asked about the proposed budget cuts for FEMA, DHS Secretary Kelly said tersely we'll make do. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.