Federal disaster funds for tornado relief halted due to Hurricane Irene

Federal disaster funds for tornado relief halted due to Hurricane Irene

August 30th, 2011 by Mariann Martin in News

Hurricane specialist Dan Brown reviews the tracks and intensity of Hurricane Irene at the National Hurricane Center on Friday.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

In this file photo, Ringgold Middle School, bottom left, and Ringgold High School, middle, were severely damaged during storms that produced numerous tornadoes throughout the North Georgia and Chattanooga area.

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

Federal funding for some future long-term disaster relief in Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama to help rebuild after the April tornadoes has been halted.

Instead, the money will be used for immediate disaster relief to victims of Hurricane Irene, officials said Monday.

The shift in funding will not affect individual assistance for tornado victims or projects that already have been submitted or approved, Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Craig Fugate told reporters Monday during a news conference about Hurricane Irene.

"If it's been submitted and approved, it already has the funding," Fugate said. "But if any work has not been submitted yet for permanent work -- and this would be the repairs and rebuilding -- we will not be able to fund those based upon on our remaining dollars, as we are now responding to Hurricane Irene."

FEMA's Disaster Relief Fund is running low, with less than $1 billion left, officials said. As a result, Fugate said, the agency must invoke what it calls immediate needs funding, which prioritizes the needs of survivors, states and communities during disasters.

The agency also had to keep enough money in the fund to respond to other disasters that could occur this year.

Fugate said FEMA is talking to the White House about additional needed funding. In the coming weeks, when officials have a better assessment of the damage from Hurricane Irene, they will know how much money will be needed, he said.

Congress would need to approve additional money for the disaster fund, a vote that might be difficult to muster through the House in this year's anti-spending climate.

Georgia and Tennessee's four Republican senators did not immediately respond Monday afternoon to questions about whether they would support more funding for FEMA.

FEMA officials stressed that assistance for temporary housing, individual claims, emergency response and debris removal will not be affected by the freeze. However, help with long-term public repair and rebuilding projects will be halted.

Officials could not specify what those projects might be in Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama. Some of them might be similar to projects announced last week in Alabama, where FEMA's Hazard Mitigation Grant Program approved $491,000 to build individual safe rooms and purchase fixed generators for several communities.

The director of the Alabama Emergency Management Agency, Art Faulkner, told The Associated Press in an interview Monday that children could spend more time in temporary schools because of the action. Also, Faulkner said, the move holds up about $33 million in funding meant to build and strengthen storm shelters.

Through the beginning of August, FEMA had awarded more than $7.4 million in individual assistance grants in Tennessee, while Georgia had received $4.7 million. The agency has supplied additional funding for local governments and in other grant assistance.

This is not the first time FEMA has frozen assistance to keep its relief fund from being depleted. The strategy was used as a precautionary measure five times in the last 10 years, the most recent in 2010.

"When we reach a point where we need to preserve the funding in there for emergency work, we will discontinue repair work that's considered permanent from previous older disasters," Fugate said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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