Superstorm Sandy occurred at a unique time.
Congress was out of session, and the election season was in full swing. The chairmen and ranking members of congressional committees that oversee the Federal Emergency Management Agency were campaigning for reelection in their home states, some of which were hit by Sandy.
The East Coast now faces billions of dollars in damage estimates, and that number could very well increase. Currently there is $4 billion in the Disaster Relief Fund (DRF), which is often referred to as the President’s Disaster Relief Fund and managed by FEMA.
In the past, if disaster damage exceeded the amount in the DRF, Congress has appropriated funds to maintain the fund at a certain level. Following a large disaster, Congress will then make emergency supplemental appropriations.
Congress must come together to aid the areas affected by Sandy with supplemental appropriations. Some people in Washington think supplemental disaster relief money should be restricted unless the money is offset elsewhere. Other opponents note that reliance upon this type of supplement could result in overfunding, because many initial estimates can be exaggerated.
So far, a request has not been made for a supplemental funding measure by the White House. It may not even need to be requested until the new year. But that could easily change. Last year, Congress appropriated $1.9 billion for Hurricane Irene, which hit the East Coast. While a devastating storm, Irene is likely to be considerably less costly than Sandy. If the FEMA budget suddenly runs low, which is likely, the congressional leadership would undoubtedly work to request supplemental funds in a most timely manner.
According to a report by the Congressional Research Service, Congress has appropriated about $322.7 billion for disaster assistance in 34 appropriations acts since 1989. But the costliest disasters have occurred since 2001, including the 9/11 attacks and 2005’s hurricane season, which included Katrina. With Katrina, Congress approved two emergency supplemental spending bills less than two weeks after the storm struck that provided $62.3 billion in emergency response and recovery. A third request was later approved by Congress.
The pros of additional funds clearly outweigh the cons, however. Disasters are unpredictable and costly, but emergency supplements allow for flexibility during times of need. It’s impossible to budget for major storms because Congress would have to reduce funding for other programs to pay for a hypothetical event in the future.
The recovery from Superstorm Sandy will likely require more money. New Jersey is still cleaning up from Irene, and damage assessments have yet to be completed for Sandy. These massive storms seem to be normal now. In the last 10 years, the nation’s costliest disasters have occurred, including the Midwest floods and Hurricanes Gustav and Ike in 2008, the 2011 Midwest tornado outbreak and, that same year, severe flooding in Minot, N.D.
The country will face more disasters just as terrible — and perhaps larger than Sandy — in the future.
If the administration finds that more funding is going to be required for Sandy, we must have supplemental spending bills to help our fellow Americans, and they must have bipartisan support, because that is what we do in this country during times of crisis. We help those in need when the resources of a state are overwhelmed by a disaster, and politics should never play into it.
Witt is the chairman and founder of Witt Associates, a public safety and crisis management consulting firm, and was the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency from 1993-2001.