Though the presidential campaigns have been focused on Hurricane Sandy, the politically sticky topic of disaster relief is making its way to the forefront.
With Sandy bearing down on the East Coast, supporters of President Barack Obama are saying that Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney would gut FEMA, leaving it incapable of handling a massive hurricane or tornado.
How would Romney handle FEMA if he was elected president?
In a June 13, 2011 GOP primary debate, Romney suggested that states should assume a more significant role in disaster relief. The debate took place soon after a tornado devastated Joplin, Missouri and other communities, and moderator John King of CNN asked Romney whether states should take on a greater role in paying to repair and rebuild.
"Absolutely. 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," Romney said. "Instead of thinking in the federal budget, what we should cut -- we should ask ourselves the opposite question. What should we keep?"
When asked a follow up on whether disaster relief should shift to the states, Romney said: "We cannot -- we cannot afford to do those things without jeopardizing the future for our kids," he said.
"It is simply immoral, in my view, for us to continue to rack up larger and larger debts and pass them on to our kids, knowing full well that we'll all be dead and gone before it's paid off," he added. "It makes no sense at all."
Romney did not go as far as some reports have suggested, which say he would shut down the agency entirely. But he has made it clear that he would shift more responsibility to the states or private agencies when it comes to disaster relief in an effort to reduce federal spending and the deficit.
"Gov. Romney believes that states should be in charge of emergency management in responding to storms and other natural disasters in their jurisdictions," said Romney campaign spokesman Yohana de la Torre. "As the first responders, states are in the best position to aid affected individuals and communities, and to direct resources and assistance to where they are needed most. This includes help from the federal government and FEMA."
Even if Romney FEMA left standing, Obama backers argue that a diminished agency would make it extremely difficult for municipalities to recover quickly from significant natural disasters. That could hurt the nation's economy as towns and states if delays in recoveries occur due to gaps in federal assistance.
"Left to its own devices a storm-ravaged Delaware or Louisiana is going to be squeezed between balanced budget rules and falling sales tax receipts and be forced into an increasing state of dilapidation," writes Slate's Matthew Yglesias.
The Romney campaign points out that FEMA could face cuts anyway due to mandatory spending cuts under a deal passed by Congress and signed by President Obama. The "sequestration" cuts were triggered when Congress failed to reach an accord on a deficit reduction deal on its own. According to the Office of Management and Budget, FEMA could lose out on $878 million. Of that money, $580 million from direct disaster relief would be slashed from FEMA's budget.
But it's unclear whether the sequestration cuts will take effect, since Obama and congressional Republicans have expressed desire to avert them.
Romney's running mate Paul Ryan has also drawn attention for the impact his budget plans could have on federal disaster funding.