After Sandy, FEMA Goes From Goat to Glory

FEMA has enough funds to provide disaster relief after Hurricane Sandy.

October 30, 2012, 2:10 PM

Oct. 31, 2012— -- The Federal Emergency Management Agency, usually the favorite whipping boy of politicians during disasters, is basking in unaccustomed glory.

FEMA, ridiculed after Hurricane Katrina and the subject of proposed budget cuts after the financial crisis, is being praised by governors and mayors from storm-ravaged states along the East Coast.

"I have to say, the administration, the president himself and FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate have been outstanding with us so far," said Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on "Good Morning America" Tuesday. "He worked on that last night with me?offered any other assets that we needed to help."

New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, said this morning that he spoke to Fugate "a bunch of times" and was assured that as New York City and surrounding areas begin their recovery, there will be "no shortage of dollars."

Though nearly every public figure supports speedy relief for disaster victims, FEMA often becomes a political football when it comes to funding.

Mitt Romney, who said earlier this year that the states should have more responsibility for responding to natural disasters and suggested that sending disaster relief to the private sector would be "even better," would not answer repeated questions from reporters Tuesday about whether he would cut funding to FEMA.

Paul Ryan singled out FEMA's funding in his 2011 proposed budget, which was passed in the House but not the Senate. Ryan recommended a 40 percent cut in the budget for programs including FEMA, citing the record number of disasters declared during the Obama administration.

On Tuesday, Ryan was asked about FEMA cuts at an event in Wisconsin, but the Republican VP candidate did not respond. A spokesman, however, said that Ryan's 2011 budget did not include any FEMA cuts.

In previous emergencies, FEMA went to Congress for supplementary funding for disaster relief. But this year the agency was allocated $6.4 billion by Congress in addition to more than a $1 billion in funds left over for the previous year, enough to meet the immediate needs of states affected by Sandy, Fugate said in a conference call on Monday. The Disaster Relief Fund had about $3.6 billion remaining as of Oct. 26, according to FEMA.

It's a sea change from FEMA's condition just a few years ago, when in 2010 Fugate wrote to Congress asking for the urgent allocation of billions of dollars to meet the agency's disaster relief needs.

Over the years, rancorous debate about budget cuts in Washington have spelled trouble for FEMA's funding, which is doled out to states to meet disaster relief needs for municipalities, businesses and individuals.

In 2011, Republican leaders in the House insisted on spending cuts to offset fund increases for FEMA to meet the disaster relief after Hurricane Irene.

Christie, at a press conference with FEMA officials last year, called for Congress to "figure out budget cuts later" and provide immediate relief to people suffering from the storm.

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David Kendall, a senior fellow at the non-partisan think tank Third Way, says that one of the reasons for FEMA's relative fiscal health during this storm is because Congress has finally began the process of allocating money for the agency before disaster strikes.

"Part of the problems is that they've just responded without putting money in the budget for disasters," Kendall said. "What started to change is that we're putting the money in ahead of time."

And in the past, Fugate credited lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina for the agency's improved response to natural disasters.

FEMA Goes From Goat to Glory

"I think the big [lesson] ? and this is one Congress recognized and passed the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act ? was that we shouldn't have to wait until a state is overwhelmed to begin getting ready, that we should be able to go in before the governor's made a request, have supplies ready, have our teams in the state and work as one team, not waiting for damages to occur and that formal request to come," Fugate said on ABC News' "This Week" last year.

Another lesson learned from Katrina: the president is held responsible for FEMA's successes or failures.

With the election only a few days away President Obama suspended his campaign and instead remained in Washington to monitor the storm, including making phone calls to governors and elected officials in states across the East Coast.

"My instructions to the federal agency has been: Do not figure out why we can't do something. I want you to figure out how we do something. I want you to cut through red tape. I want you to cut through bureaucracy," Obama said at the Red Cross today. "There's no excuse for inaction at this point. I want every agency to lean forward and to make sure that we are getting the resources where they're needed as quickly as possible."

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