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Feds deny aid to individuals for storm repairs in North Minneapolis

WASHINGTON — More and more, officials around the country will likely be confronting an increasingly frugal FEMA when they ask for help to cope with natural disasters.

Mayor R.T. Rybak, far left, and other officials toured North Minneapolis following the May tornadoes.
MinnPost photo by James Nord
Mayor R.T. Rybak, far left, and other officials toured North Minneapolis following the May tornadoes.

After President Obama declared parts of Hennepin and Anoka County as federal disaster areas, that opened the door for FEMA to pay for up to 75 percent of all repair and recovery efforts for public infrastructure, but not individuals’ property. Lawmakers, including Rybak, Gov. Mark Dayton, Rep. Keith Ellison and Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, had asked the president and FEMA to expand that assistance to include individual aid.

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President Obama
REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
President Obama
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Minnesota has received 47 disaster declarations since 1953, the 14th most in the country. Last decade, the state received more than $382.8 million in disaster relief Funding. 2010 was the state’s costliest year, as severe Red River flooding and a record tornado season led FEMA to spend $81.5 million on recovery efforts in the state.

So far this year, Obama has declared disasters following the tornadic storms in Hennepin and Anoka Counties and the flooding in the Red River and Minnesota River valleys.

Such declarations mean federal funds can be used to pay for up to 75 percent of the costs associated with clean-up, repair and replacement efforts. There are two main types of funds: those that provide immediate assistance to victims (such as providing food and water, tarps to cover up damaged property, etc.) and after-the-fact recovery funds that assist with repairing public infrastructure (called “public assistance”) and private homes and businesses (“individual assistance”).

Minnesota Homeland Security and Management Director Kris Eide said seeking and receiving disaster funding isn’t a competitive process among states, but it’s one that requires states to best justify why they need funds. She called the process, “subjective.”

“It’s based on the story that we tell and how FEMA perceives that story,” Eide said.

Finding funding
But in order to get disaster aid, there needs to be a fund from which to draw it.

A disaster relief fund shortfall would require Congress to pass emergency funding to keep it afloat, leaving those affected by storms to fend for themselves until the funding is approved.

Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, the Democratic chairwoman of the Senate panel tasked with funding FEMA, said at a committee meeting last week that that breaking point could come as early as January.

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As FEMA draws closer to depleting the fund, it will stop providing recovery funds in order to preserve those needed for immediate disaster relief, which Landrieu’s office warns could happen by November. That means states or individuals that would usually rely on FEMA to pay for back-end recovery would either need to pay for those rebuilding efforts themselves or cease them altogether.

Given the outlook, Landrieu has been pushing the White House to request an emergency FEMA appropriation before her committee begins marking up the budget bill later this summer.

But House Republicans have insisted on cuts to other areas of the budget to pay for any emergency funding.

This was evident when the House passed its FEMA funding bill in May. The bill maintained last year’s disaster-relief funding level — $2.65 billion — and provided $1 billion in extra emergency funds preemptively, according to the Majority Leader’s office. To pay for it, the House cut a Department of Energy grant program that had paid for manufacturing high-mileage vehicles. Raising Landrieu’s ire, the bill cut funding for other programs, such as responder grants.

When asked in May about a hypothetical emergency relief package to support victims of the Joplin, Mo., tornado, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said: “If there is support for a supplemental [appropriation for disaster relief], it would be accompanied by support for having pay-fors to that supplemental.”

“Pay-for” is a term used to describe a tax increase or spending cut to offset the new spending. Republicans are staunchly against tax increases.

On the matter of the disaster relief fund as a whole, a Cantor spokesman offered this statement: “There is certainly a federal role in helping victims cope with natural disasters and tragedy, which is why House Republicans provided more than double the funds requested by President Obama for FEMA Disaster relief while finding real savings elsewhere. In a $3 trillion budget, there is no question that spending can and should be prioritized to ensure that those most in need are cared for in a responsible fashion.”

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Devin Henry can be reached at dhenry@minnpost.com.