Government shutdown could hurt weather disaster responses, Fema says

The potential imminent shutdown of the federal government could hamper responses to any new weather disasters, leave hazardous waste sites uninspected, and stop work at federal Superfund clean-up sites, according to Democratic House members.

“Federal emergency management agency (Fema) staff will still respond to emergencies, but all long-term projects will be delayed due to a lack of funding in the disaster relief fund,” warned the Illinois Democrat Lauren Underwood on Friday.

Underwood warned that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will stop inspecting most hazardous waste sites, as well as drinking water and chemical facilities. Also affected, she added, would be efforts to contain polyfluoroalkyl substances – “forever” chemicals, or PFAS – and cleanup activities at Superfund sites.

The warnings come a day after New York was hit by torrential rains that shut down parts of the city’s mass-transit system, flooded parts of Brooklyn and triggered the state governor, Kathy Hochul, to declare a state of emergency.

Wide-ranging impacts of a federal freeze come amid warnings that there is little left in the primary government relief fund, after 23 confirmed US weather events related to the climate disaster so far in 2023 have cost at least $1bn each.

The events included two flooding events, 18 severe storms, one tropical cyclone, one wildfire and one winter storm, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information. For comparison, the 1980–2022 annual average was roughly eight events.

According to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the US has seen more billion-dollar weather disasters in 2023 than in any previously recorded year.

Fema spent an average of $4bn annually between 1992 and 1999 on disaster aid. Since 2000, excluding years that saw disasters like 2005’s Hurricane Katrina and the response to Covid-19, the emergency management agency’s spending has jumped to around $10bn annually.

With three months of the year to go and disaster costs running at $23bn, the Fema administrator Deanne Criswell testified before the House transportation and infrastructure subcommittee on emergency management last week that the agency would have difficulties responding to any natural disaster in the event of a shutdown.

Criswell pointed to decreasing funding levels for the disaster relief fund, climate change and the need for its mitigation, the costs of flood insurance and border security as among the agency’s concerns. She also said in her testimony that the agency’s mission had become “more challenging”.

“We can no longer really speak of a disaster season. With atmospheric rivers in January to tornadoes and wildfires in December, we now face intensified natural disasters throughout the year, often in places not used to experiencing them,” she said.

Citing the Maui wildfires and the California tropical cyclone, she warned that disasters required outsized funding.

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“We are in such a moment today,” Criswell added and said she had instituted an “immediate needs funding” mandate of $16bn.

The agency had already cut off more than $1bn in funding to 1,000 public assistance projects, Criswell said.

The warnings come as the Biden administration directs more funds toward disaster relief and away from reconstruction grants. Fema has already delayed around $2.8bn, including $555m for long-term recovery projects in Florida, $101m in Louisiana and another $74m in California, as its disaster fund dropped to just over $2.4bn, the Washington Post reported last week.

While it is likely the fund will be boosted – disasters affect both red and blue states – Criswell warned that any failure to restock agency disaster relief coffers would leave Fema unable to fund a response to new emergencies.

“It is vital that Fema – and the American people – be able to tap into an adequately funded Disaster Relief Fund so that we can continue to respond as soon as disaster strikes, rebuild in their aftermath and prepare for future disasters,” she said.

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