Lawmakers Ponder a Path Forward on Disaster Relief

After the recent spate of wildfires and hurricanes, members are finally ready to shell out the cash—but are they looking ahead?

Firefighters trying to keep a wildfire from jumping Santa Ana Road near Ventura, Calif., in December.
AP Photo/Noah Berger
Feb. 7, 2018, 8 p.m.

A colossal $90 billion disaster package may soon make its way to communities devastated by recent hurricanes and wildfires, following a breakthrough on a bipartisan budget deal Wednesday.

But some key senators are airing concerns about Congress’s ability to respond quickly to natural crises in light of debilitating political divisions and the widespread expectation that those disasters will occur more frequently in the future.

The House passed a package before Christmas, and the Senate had failed to take up the mantle until Wednesday.

The agreement aside, sharp partisan divisions remain on strategies to both fend off disasters and deliver necessary aid. Many Republicans want forest-management reform—which is absent in the package—that they say will help scale down the severity of fires by removing highly flammable dead trees and brush.

Some on the other side of the aisle say those measures will jeopardize long-standing environmental safeguards. Democrats are focusing on revamping the response process to speed up relief for all disasters.

“You realize Puerto Rico still has significant power outages. It seems like we have to learn some lessons here on how to get engaged more quickly,” Sen. Jeff Merkley, a Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, told National Journal.

“The fact that [the disaster package] seems to have gotten lost in the midst of the tax bill and every other bill up here when you have an emergency condition does suggest there must be a better way to do it,” he added.

The package poised for approval in the Senate is the third tranche of disaster funding in response to Hurricanes Maria, Irma, and Harvey.

Nearly 30 percent of Puerto Rican residents, however, still don’t have power four months after Maria ravaged the island. Homicides in Puerto Rico increased dramatically above average in January, prompting Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio of Florida to call on the Justice Department to send law enforcement officers to the island territory.

Senate leadership hasn’t gone public yet with the text for the disaster package or the broad two-year budget deal. But a congressional source familiar with agreement told National Journal the package includes $23.5 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, $28 billion in Community Development Block Grants, and $15 billion for Army Corps of Engineer funding.

A carve-out of $2 billion would go directly to strengthening and updating the power grids for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. That necessitates an exemption to the Stafford Act, which requires infrastructure to be restored to its condition prior to the disaster. The House’s $81 billion bill also includes that exemption.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the chair of the Appropriations Committee subpanel in charge of most disaster funding and the island territories specifically, said that exemption can help to decrease the need for regular disaster relief.

But Murkowski and other lawmakers indicated the reactive approach to disasters likely won’t change in the near future.

“We don’t know when the next hurricane or earthquake or tsunami is going to hit and the extent of the damage, and so by the very nature of the definition of a disaster, you’re going to be doing most of this in a reactive mode, but is there more that we can do to ensure that there is a more predictable level of funding or source of funding?” Murkowski said. “I don’t know what the answer is, other than that it seems that we’re dealing with more disasters and more expensive disasters.”

The last three years have been the warmest on record, with 2017 pulling up the rear in that category and 2016 leading, according to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report released in mid-January.

That fuels more severe hurricanes, due to warmer ocean temperatures and high sea levels, and more devastating fires. Funds used to fight wildfires are steadily rising. That data points heavily to an increased need in the future for emergency-relief packages.

Meanwhile, lawmakers can’t even rally around funding for basic, non-emergency functions. House members passed legislation Tuesday to extend government funding into March—a fifth consecutive stopgap measure.

“The process is a very broken process,” said Sen. Steve Daines, a Republican representing fire-afflicted Montana. “Both sides are very frustrated about these never-ending [continuing resolutions] and the uncertainty that provides for various agencies and the American people.”

Debate and delay over emergency relief isn’t a new concept on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers failed to pass disaster relief for areas affected by Hurricane Sandy for months, ultimately doing so in January 2013.

Nelson, who partnered with Rubio to shepherd through the Senate package, pointed to the need for an overhauled emergency funding system—one that could potentially remove lawmakers, at least partially, from the equation.

“You ought to have a process that would appropriate the money when the need is there,” he told National Journal.

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