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FEMA stretched thin after Hurricane Irene

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Steve Chiotakis: Residents of the East coast today are surveying more of the damage — which could top billions of dollars in the wake of Hurricane Irene — with a whole lot of wind, water and tree damage. The federal agency charged with helping out in times like these is in a money pinch.

The Washington Post reports the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)– with under a billion dollars left in its disaster assistance fund — is temporarily suspending payments to infrastructure projects in places hit hard by tornadoes and other natural disasters this year.

Ed O’Keefe writes for the Post’s Federal Eye blog and covers the government. Hi Ed.

Ed O’Keefe: How you doing?

Chiotakis: How does hurricane Irene affect FEMA’s ability to keep up relief efforts in other places — Joplin, Mo. or Tuscaloosa, Ala. that were really hit hard by tornadoes back in the spring?

O’Keefe: People who applied for individual assistance to fix their houses or their businesses are still going to get money. The state and local governments who requested federal aid to rebuild schools, and roads, and police stations — some of that money is likely to get put on hold in coming days in those Southern states and out in Joplin, because FEMA needs to spend some money obviously dealing with the situation along the East coast.

Chiotakis: How are politics being played in FEMA’s funding?

O’Keefe: There is a bill out there right now that would give them $1 billion more for this fiscal year, which ends at the end of September. But of course this year, amid that appetite to cut, already some Republican lawmakers are saying that if FEMA needs more money, Congress is going to have to find ways to cut money out of other government programs and agencies. So it very well could be that this becomes sort of a proxy-war or a side battle in the midst of that super committee debate, or it may be that this just moves quickly considering the need across a good part of this country.

Chiotakis: What if Irene was much more severe? Do we have enough money in the Federal government to cover a worst-case scenario?

O’Keefe: If there had been a much wider disaster, it would require Congress to come in and quickly pass supplemental funding. But again, in this year where you’re talking about cutting spending, while you spend for these unknown disasters, it could be that politics gets in the way, or people just stand up and say on principle, “Look, if we’re going to spend money we need to find a way to cut it from somewhere else.” And we’ll have to just wait and see in the coming weeks whether or not that is a debate that is held, or is ignored because of the widespread damage.

Chiotakis: Ed O’Keefe of the Washington Post. Ed, thanks.

O’Keefe: Thank you.

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