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FEMA puts restrictions in place as disaster relief funds run low

What do these restrictions mean for folks still recovering from disasters? And will Congress give FEMA the help it needs?
FEMA puts restrictions in place as disaster relief funds run low
Posted at 3:00 PM, Sep 09, 2023

From Hawaii to Vermont, catastrophic weather events across the country have been occurring one after another, leaving Americans in desperate need of help.

"We got 3 feet of water in the restaurant, four in the hotel rooms. I'm right here out in front now, and we've got debris everywhere," Anna King, a resident and business owner in Steinhatchee, Florida, said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, better known as FEMA, is racing to respond.

"We started with atmospheric rivers in California in January, extreme tornadoes in the spring, to the wildfires, and now we are in peak hurricane season," Deanne Criswell, the administrator of FEMA, said. "And we have had an unprecedented number of disaster requests from governors because of the extreme weather that they're experiencing. This is our new normal. This is the operational tempo that we find ourselves in."

Since 1979, FEMA has been coordinating federal relief efforts in disaster zones across the U.S., from tornadoes in the heartland to hurricanes along the Gulf.

When these occur, FEMA works to provide folks with necessities like water, food, shelter, and even financial assistance—all of which are critical but costly. But the costs are adding up, and FEMA's Disaster Relief Fund for 2023 is rapidly shrinking.

"FEMA's Disaster Relief Fund, which as of this morning has a balance of $3.4 billion," Criswell said.

SEE MORE: Latest disasters have White House seeking more FEMA funding

With four months still left in the year, that's not a ton of money for any other major disasters that might occur. So as Hurricane Idalia rolled in, Criswell announced that she was directing her team to implement what they call "Immediate Needs Funding" restrictions, which basically prioritize funds for lifesaving measures. These restrictions allow FEMA to temporarily put a hold on funding for long-term recovery projects and hazard mitigation projects in order to focus on what needs attention right now.

"This means that FEMA will prioritize available funding for critical response efforts to Idalia, the Maui fires, and any other extreme weather events that may come our way without interruption while continuing to meet the immediate needs of survivors through the remaining weeks of the fiscal year," Criswell said.

But Criswell warns that more assistance will be needed from Congress.

"I want to stress that while Immediate Needs Funding will ensure we can continue to respond to disasters, it is not a permanent solution. Congress must work with us on the supplemental request that the administration has made on behalf of FEMA," Criswell said.

In early August, the Biden administration issued a request to Congress for an additional $12 billion in order to top up FEMA's Disaster Relief Fund.

"How could we not respond? My God. How could we not respond to these needs? And so, I'm confident, even though there's a lot of talk from some of our friends up on the Hill about the cost, we got to do it. This is the United States of America," President Biden said.

It's important to note that this isn't the first time FEMA funds have run so low that immediate needs funding, or 'INF,' restrictions were put in place.

According to a 2022 Congressional Research Service report, FEMA implemented INF restrictions after Hurricane Harvey hit Texas in August 2017 as the "unobligated balance in the Disaster Relief Fund fell below $2.8 billion" right before Hurricane Irma was set to hit Florida.

A few weeks later, in October, FEMA limited INF restrictions after receiving "a $7.4 billion supplemental" for the Disaster Relief Fund.

Despite the uncertainty surrounding FEMA's request for additional funds in 2023, some folks say they are still confident FEMA will come through for them. For many folks, that help can't come soon enough.

"I'm waiting for FEMA to get out here to give me, you know, let me know what I can claim or what I can do," Grace Kremer, a resident of St. Petersburg, Florida, said.

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