Disaster victims in Puerto Rico, Texas and Florida can breath a sigh of relief. A piece of legislation authorizing $36.5 billion in aid for communities affected by recent hurricanes and wildfires easily passed the House on Thursday, despite some conservatives' concerns about the growing cost of disaster relief as wildfires raging in California - expected to be the costliest in modern California history - place yet another strain on FEMA's budget. All of those who voted against the legislation were from Republicans, but the bill managed to passeasily in the 353-69 vote. The legislation will provide direct disaster relief and replenish FEMA's depleted coffers as well as the federal government's flood insurance program.
The package includes $18.7 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) disaster relief fund - including $4.9 billion for a disaster relief loan account - $16 billion to address national flood insurance program debt and $576.5 for wildfire recovery efforts. It also provided $1.27 billion for disaster food assistance for Puerto Rico.
As the Hill points out, more than 80% of Puerto Rico remains without power in the aftermath of Hurricanes Maria and Irma, and major cities in Texas, Florida, and other Gulf states are slowly rebuilding following Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. Congress is likely to approve still more billions of dollars for disaster aid in the months to come.
Many of the Republicans who opposed the bill bristled at the revitalization of the federal flood insurance program and expressed concern about the growing costs of natural disasters.
Congress is likely to approve still more billions of dollars for disaster aid in the months to come. Yet, many of the Republicans who voted against the relief bill said they were protesting the increasing monetary toll that natural disasters are having on the federal budget.
Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.), the head of the Republican Study Committee, said that supplemental disaster relief should be offset with spending cuts.
“It is only a matter of time before the U.S. faces the next catastrophe. But for some reason, the government does not budget with this in mind. Instead, Congress waits for a crisis to happen and then hurries to pass an aid package afterward,” he wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.
Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C) said the debts would add up regardless of how good the cause of disaster relief was.
“If we don’t do something to begin to offset some of this, I think that in a matter of months or a matter of years people are going to look back at this Congress and say, ‘what were they thinking?’” he said.
His fellow House Freedom Caucus member Rep. David Schweikert (R-Az.) said that bailing out the Flood Insurance program without reforms amounted to throwing good money after bad.
“Emergency is emergency, but there are programs we’re going to have to deal [with], bite the bullet, and I think flood insurance is one of them, where you also have a moral hazard in its current design,” he said.
The disaster relief bill is now awaiting consideration in the Senate. The bill was the second installment of funds for areas that have been ravaged by fires and hurricanes that have hammered the US this year, following a $15.3 billion relief package that was signed into law in September by President Donald Trump, as the New York Times points out. However, with total cleanup costs across a broad swath of the Southern US, along with Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, already eclipsing the $50 billion mark, much more funding will be needed.
The bill's passage comes after President Donald Trump tweeted earlier today that the federal government couldn't stay in Puerto Rico forever.
...We cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in P.R. forever!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 12, 2017
Given Puerto Rico's bankruptcy, th federal money is the island's only real hope to rebuild its devastated power grid and repair roads, dams and hundreds of thousands of homes that were wrecked by Irma and Maria. Even before this year's storms, the National Flood Insurance Program owed the Treasury more than $30 billion.
The Senate is currently away on a week-long recess, but is expected to pass the bill when lawmakers return next week.