Federal disaster kitty drying up fast

President Obama listens to FEMA administrator Craig Fugate during a video teleconference led by FEMA to monitor the federal response to Hurricane Irene at FEMA Headquarters, Aug. 27, 2011 in Washington, D.C.
Ron Sachs-Pool/Getty Images

WASHINGTON - The government's main disaster aid account is running woefully short of money as the Obama administration confronts damages from Hurricane Irene that could run into billions of dollars.

With less than $800 million in its disaster aid coffers, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has been forced to freeze rebuilding projects from disasters dating to Hurricane Katrina to conserve money for emergency needs in the wake of Irene. ¼

Lawmakers from states ravaged by tornadoes this spring, like Missouri and Alabama, are especially furious.

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The shortfalls in FEMA's disaster aid account have been obvious to lawmakers on Capitol Hill for months — and privately acknowledged to them by FEMA — but the White House has opted against asking for more money, riling many lawmakers.

"Despite the fact that the need ... is well known," Reps. Robert Aderholt of Alabama and David Price of North Carolina wrote the administration last month, "it unfortunately appears that no action is being taken by the administration." The lawmakers chair the panel responsible for FEMA's budget.

FEMA now admits the disaster aid shortfall could approach $5 billion for the upcoming budget year, and that's before accounting for Irene.

As a result, funds to help states and local governments rebuild from this year's tornadoes, as well as past disasters like hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the massive Tennessee floods of last spring, have been frozen.

Instead, FEMA is only paying for the "immediate needs" of disaster-stricken communities, which include debris removal, food, water and emergency shelter.

"Going into September being the peak part of hurricane season, and with Irene, we didn't want to get to the point where we would not have the funds to continue to support the previous impacted survivors as well as respond to the next disaster," FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate told reporters at the White House on Monday.

Earlier this year, the administration requested $1.8 billion for FEMA's disaster relief fund, despite pent-up demands for much more. Appropriations for last year totaled four times that amount.

FEMA estimates that the request still left the disaster fund short by $2 billion to $4.8 billion for the upcoming fiscal year.

The likely vehicle for replenishing the disaster account is the homeland security spending bill for the budget year beginning Oct. 1. The House passed the measure in early June, but the Senate has yet to act.

The Obama White House is just the latest administration to lowball disaster relief requests. Over the past two decades, Congress has approved $130 billion for FEMA's disaster account. But the bulk of that money, $110 billion, has been provided as emergency funding in addition to the annual budget.