RICHMOND – As federal disaster relief runs dry, Virginia communities may not get the help they need any time soon as they clean up from Hurricane Irene’s pummeling.
Instead, federal aid is at risk of becoming ensnarled in a debate that could rival the debt-ceiling fracas, which took Congress by storm this summer.
U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor, R-7th Congressional District, reiterated this week that any additional funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, must be offset with spending cuts in the federal budget.
On Monday, Cantor told Fox News: “In instances like this, yes, there is a federal role. Yes, we’re going to find the money. We’re just going to need to make sure that there are savings elsewhere to continue to do so.”
He has made similar comments, including after deadly tornadoes tore through southwestern Virginia this spring.
“Clearly when disasters and emergencies happen, people expect their government to treat them as national priorities and respond properly. People also expect their government to spend their dollars wisely, and to make efforts to prioritize and save when possible,” said Cantor’s spokeswoman Megan Whittemore.
Whittemore said the U.S. House of Representatives passed a budget bill in June for the Department of Homeland Security to replenish its federal disaster aid fund. But the Senate has not acted on the budget bill.
The numerous deadly tornadoes nationwide have depleted much of FEMA’s funding even before the hurricane season began in June. FEMA could be short as much as $5 billion in disaster aid in the coming year.
Because of that shortfall, the federal government has delayed approving new, long-term projects, so FEMA has enough cash to grant immediate requests, U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano said during an afternoon news conference Tuesday in Chesterfield County.
For disaster relief efforts, Gov. Bob McDonnell recently set aside $17 million from the year-end cash balance. Of that amount, about $4.3 million is expected to help with the tornado recovery in several southwestern Virginia counties.
In addition, a separate state disaster relief fund has raised $1.1 million through private and corporate donations.
These and other state funds for disaster response will be tapped for hurricane disaster relief, said Jeff Caldwell, the governor’s spokesman.
“We’ll make sure to take care of state requirements,” McDonnell said Tuesday morning on WTOP radio.
The state must pay overtime for transportation and forestry crews plus public safety officials who worked during and after the storm.
But localities don’t have pockets as deep as the state.
Cities and counties will need to find cash upfront to pay police officers overtime, staff emergency operations centers and run shelters. If localities are eligible, state or federal aid could help reimburse those costs.
York County is facing at least $1 million in recovery costs, including hiring private contractors to help county workers with the debris pickup, County Administrator James McReynolds said.
York County may have to reach into its $123 million budget or rainy day fund to pay for the preparation and emergency costs in the short term. One quarter of York County was without power Tuesday as officials continue removing debris and using generators to run pump stations that keep the county’s sewer system online.
The county expects to have an estimated cost for the recovery effort by next week, said George Hrichak, chairman of the county’s board of supervisors. But officials hope FEMA money will be available, he said.
“The whole federal budget issue is going to have to be addressed. You can’t spend money like it doesn’t matter. There’s got to be accountability and responsibility,” Hrichak said. “Is it going to hurt localities if we don’t get FEMA money? Absolutely.”
Regardless of how Congress pays for disaster assistance, McDonnell said the federal government is obligated by law to give aid to eligible communities.
“If we meet the federal requirements, we expect the federal government to pay,” McDonnell said.