By Rachel Roberts
In two separate votes the Senate reached a bipartisan agreement Monday night to potentially end the battle over disaster relief spending; a battle which threatened a government shutdown for the third time in six months and sent fears through communities in Western Massachusetts awaiting federal disaster relief funds.
The announcement came amidst concern that funds for the Federal Emergency Management Agency would run dry as early as Tuesday or Wednesday, though FEMA spokeswoman Rachel Racusen said the agency could stretch the remaining $114 million budget to Friday, which also marks the end of the fiscal year.
The dispute over a small part of the almost $4 trillion budget hits close to home for those residents of Massachusetts affected by the June 1 severe storms and tornadoes, as well as tropical storm Irene. Over $13 million of FEMA money has been approved as individual assistance for state residents in need of temporary housing, housing repairs and construction, disaster-damaged vehicles and other necessary expenses or serious needs as determined by FEMA.
In the first measure, Senate officials approved spending that would temporarily extend federal dollars to assist victims of floods, hurricanes, tornadoes and other natural disasters until Oct 4. House members will be able to approve the shorter of the two measures in a ‘pro forma’ session this week, while voting to extend federal funding until Nov. 18 will take place once members return from recess.
“It’s a win for everyone,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid declared.
Reid and other Senate Democrats allege that House Republicans needlessly held up funding by demanding spending offsets including a $1.5 billion cut to a loan program that helps automakers redesign operations to create more fuel-efficient vehicles. Another offset included a $100 million cut to an alternative energy loan program.
“It was the wrong precedent to set, one that would have jeopardized emergency funding in the future,” said Democratic Senator Charles Schumer.
The Senate measures passed Monday night approved $2.65 billion in disaster relief funding with no offsets. The measure would begin Saturday, the beginning of the new fiscal year.
In the meantime FEMA is prioritizing aid to help individual disaster victims and provide assistance to local governments with immediate needs like removing debris. Long-standing reconstruction projects, including the further delay of at least $442 million in 42 different states, will be placed on hold. North Dakota, a state ravaged by blizzards and floods over recent years, is waiting for at least $13.3 million to pay for 97 infrastructure projects. The President has declared 84 major disaster declarations in 2011 alone.
About the authors
Students in Steve Fox's Investigative Journalism & the Web class at UMass-Amherst have teamed up with the Globe to take a close-up look at the painful process of rebuilding from the June 2011 tornadoes that killed four and devastated communities in the Springfield area. Their work will also appear in the Boston Globe. Steve joined the journalism faculty at UMass-Amherst in 2007 and has 25 years of experience as an editor and reporter for print and online publications, including 10 as an editor at The Washington Post's award-winning website.