If the Department of Homeland Security funding runs out Friday, a large majority of the department’s staff and operations will continue, prompting some lawmakers to downplay the potential impact of a shutdown. But the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Administration is calling “BS.”
“I kind of take offense when people say, nothing terrible will happen if DHS shuts down,” FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate said in an interview with CNN. “First of all, I think you’re full of BS, because if there’s no consequence why are you threatening the administration with it? There are real people behind this shutdown.”
Fugate outlined a bevy of of consequences of varying sizes to FEMA operations if DHS funding lapses this Friday. Any operations not directly tied to life-saving and protecting property, he said, will shut down at midnight Friday. He said he was already planning with staff next steps in case of a shutdown, running through which staffers would remain working and which would be furloughed, and what operations would continue.
Any urgent natural disasters that require federal support — like electricity generators, search and rescue efforts and other operations to stabilize a dangerous situation — will receive it. But because of the shutdown, the response could be sluggish or delayed.
“If we have a no-notice event — a terrorist event, some kind of technological disaster or an earthquake, I’ll be calling staff back in the same time we’re responding,” he said.
“If we had a terrorist attack, if they required things like urban search and rescue teams, these are federally-sponsored teams that may be required to go. We would respond to it, but we would probably have to call people back in.”
Furloughed staff aren’t required to stay by their phones, or even at their homes, and Fugate warned that many could be traveling or difficult to reach. And Fugate said there’s no way to predict what an unexpected event would look like.
“Earthquakes have no season. You’ve got ongoing threats from various groups targeting malls, train derailments and other technological disasters that seem to happen with some regularity. We’ve got another ice storm moving through the South this week,” he said.
Winter storms have battered the nation this season, causing record-breaking snowfall in the Northeast and unexpectedly cold temperatures in the South. With the weather shifting in the coming months, that heavy snow-cover could turn into flooding in parts of the Northeast — and those parts could be out of luck when it comes to recovery.
Fugate said recovery grant payments — even those for Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy — will cease to be disbursed if funding lapses, as the staff required to process them will be furloughed. Any new requests for grants won’t be processed because of furloughs as well.
“There’s $9 billion currently in the disaster relief fund that we would anticipate paying out over the next year. If any payments are coming up, and particularly those that would impact recovery costs, [a shutdown] would delay those reimbursements,” he said.
That means Massachusetts, New Hampshire and other Northeastern states hit with heavy snowfall could be left without federal aid to assist in their cleanup efforts when the snow melts.
“Those states are currently doing preliminary damage assessments,” he said. “If they do not have those requests in by Friday, after Friday they can send them in but I can’t process them and send them to the president.”
Congress remains locked in a stalemate over DHS funding because Republicans have attached a rider to the bill rolling back President Barack Obama’s executive action delaying deportations for some immigrants.
Senate Democrats have opposed a House-passed funding bill that includes that provision, and Obama has threatened to veto it. Conservatives, meanwhile, have insisted that the funding bill tackle the immigration order.
On Monday night, a potential solution arose, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announcing plans to introduce a separate bill tackling Obama’s executive action on deportations, opening a path for a clean DHS funding bill to make it through the Senate.
But with just four days left for both chambers of Congress to hammer out a compromise and pass a clean bill, time is running out to avoid a shutdown.
Fugate outlined a number of ways in which even a temporary shutdown could have a long-term impact on the country’s safety.
The three training centers FEMA runs will shut down, including the only training center outside of the military that offers programs using live chemical agents, like Anthrax. Because there’s such a high demand for classes there, it will be difficult to reschedule those that are canceled.
DHS grants to local governments would be put on pause if a short-term CR is passed rather than a long-term funding bill.
“The grant programs to state and local governments for homeland security … as well as fire and safety grants to help expand their teams, port security, transit grants, all of these are held until we have a budget advisory,” Fugate said.
And a shutdown in particular would delay FEMA’s future activities, and the operations of the rest of the department going forward.
“It would start backing things up. [During the last shutdown,] every week we shut down it was about a week and a half to two weeks to get caught up to where we were,” he said.
Fugate didn’t offer a solution for the congressional stalemate, only underscored what he said was the urgent necessity to find a compromise. But he said he believes the immigration debate should be separate from the DHS funding debate.
“This is a debate that has a lot on both sides that needs to be worked out, but generally when you’re dealing with things like that [immigration reform] you deal with separate legislation,” he said.
“Congress has a job to do. I can respect them for taking the stands they’re taking. I cannot respect that they’re making this into a cheap debate to the American people, assuming that nobody will notice.”