The federal government has frozen some aid to tornado- and flood-ravaged Missouri and the South to focus on immediate help for victims of Hurricane Irene, disappointing residents and officials who said they still need help.
Federal Emergency Management Agency spokesman Bob Josephson said FEMA's Disaster Relief Fund is running low — down to between $800 million and $1 billion. When that happens, the agency focuses on immediate response, rather than long-term rebuilding. It also needs to ensure there's enough money to respond to any other disasters that might occur this year, he said.
The shift drew criticism from Missouri's senators, who promised to push to get full funding restored for Joplin, where a May 22 tornado killed 160 people and damaged about 7,500 homes, and other parts of the country hit by disasters earlier this year.
"I do, candidly, worry because folks in other parts of the country feel the world revolves around the corridor between Washington and New York City," Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill told The Associated Press. "What happened in southwest Missouri was huge devastation compared to what Irene did over the weekend."
Lawmakers in both parties have been frustrated with President Barack Obama's budget office, which has only requested $1.8 billion for the FEMA disaster fund despite a long-documented shortfall for disasters like hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav and massive flooding in Tennessee last spring.
House Republicans moved to double that funding this spring after tornadoes killed hundreds in Missouri and Alabama, but the legislation failed to advance in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
A little-noticed provision in the recently-passed debt limit and budget deal permits Congress to pass several billion dollars in additional FEMA disaster aid, but the White House has yet to ask for more money.
"It's too early to tell what the damage assessment will be and what next steps may need to be taken," said Meg Reilly, a spokeswoman for the White House budget office.
Victims of the Joplin tornado and other disasters will continue to get individual aid for such things as temporary housing and debris removal, Josephson said. But help with long-term rebuilding projects has been placed on hold until Congress allocates more money.
Art Faulkner, director of the Alabama Emergency Management Agency, said the FEMA action means tens of millions of dollars is on hold that was meant to rebuild four public schools destroyed by April tornadoes that killed more than 200 people. Another $33 million had been promised to construct storm shelters and strengthen existing ones.
But Faulkner said with hurricane season just starting, delaying funding for long-term projects means there will be money to buy tarps and other items for immediate relief next week should another storm system churning in the Atlantic cause damage.
"It's not all a bad thing," he said.
It wasn't immediately clear which projects in Joplin may be put on hold. Several messages left with the city of Joplin and the school district weren't returned.
Joplin real estate agent Mary Plunkett praised the government's relief effort so far, but she also urged FEMA officials to keep their promises.
"I understand there's only so much money to go around, and other disasters to attend to," said Plunkett, a retired special education teacher whose home came through the tornado undamaged. "But it's kind of hard when you've been told something, and then it's changed."
Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said he expects the federal government's full commitment to help Joplin to be fulfilled "expeditiously."
But a top House leader said Republicans controlling that chamber will look for spending cuts to "offset" new money for Irene and earlier disasters. That would probably put the House on a collision course with the Democratic-controlled Senate, which is likely to take advantage of provisions in the budget deal permitting billions of dollars in deficit-financed relief.
"We will find the money if there is a need for additional money," House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., told Fox news. "But those monies are not unlimited and we have said we have to offset that."
McCaskill noted it has been an expensive year for disasters, with five causing more than $1 billion each in damage.
Still, she said she was confident money would be found, especially since damage from Hurricane Irene could fall short of initial expectations. One private company estimated it at $7 billion — about one-fifth of the cost of Hurricane Katrina.
"I just want to make sure the commitments made to Joplin — we don't see a hiccup there," McCaskill said. "I'm confident Joplin will continue to get the funding it needs."
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