In late July, President Donald Trump’s administration informed Congress of its decision to reprogram $271 million from federal agencies, including $155 million from FEMA, in order to finance the effort to return undocumented migrants to Mexico. Though the request was made a month ago, reports of the request surfaced this week, drawing criticism from Democrats.
On Wednesday, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren both attacked Trump’s decision to pull money from FEMA’s disaster relief fund to pay for his anti-immigration efforts along the Southern border.
“Puerto Rico still can’t get the disaster relief it needs,” Gillibrand tweeted, “but Trump is going to use that money to deepen the disaster he created at the border…There is so much wrong here.”
Warren followed suit, writing “I’m particularly concerned that Trump is pulling millions of dollars from FEMA to detain more immigrants and implement his administration’s inhumane immigration policies. This is a cruel, dangerous move—especially at the height of hurricane season.”
This breaks down to two questions:
Does reprogramming these funds cut into money earmarked for Puerto Rico? And will it ultimately hurt FEMA’s ability to respond to catastrophic events?
Facts First: The answer to the first question is pretty clear, the reprogramming does not affect money allocated for Puerto Rico. The second is more complicated. While FEMA says that it has enough funds to successfully operate, disaster relief organizations and experts fear that moving the money might put FEMA’s response efforts at risk.
While $155 million is a lot of money to pull out of any federal agency, FEMA’s disaster relief fund had a balance of nearly $27 billion as of July 31.
When it comes to FEMA’s budget there are two accounts in the disaster relief fund: the Base account and the Majors account. The Base account is used to cover normal operations of FEMA. The $155 million would be taken out of the Base account, leaving a remainder of $447 million in the Base account.
“This amount will be sufficient to support operational needs and will not impact ongoing long-term recovery efforts across the country,” FEMA said in a statement to CNN.
FEMA’s current budget runs through September 30.
If President Trump declared a major disaster, the Majors account – which covers ongoing recovery efforts – would be activated and reimburse the Base account.
Future disaster funding
FEMA does not budget for potential future catastrophes – events estimated to cost the Federal government more than $500 million – but instead relies on Congress passing emergency supplemental appropriations. As FEMA’s 2020 budget report states, “the budget assumes that future catastrophic events during the budget year will be funded separately with emergency supplemental appropriations.”
Following the damage from hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017, Congress appropriated $42 billion to the recovery effort in Puerto Rico, $16 billion of which went through FEMA, $20 billion through Housing and Urban Development, and the remainder through more than a dozen smaller agencies.
Only about $14 billion of these funds have been spent.
What experts say
In a joint press release Thursday, the National Emergency Management Association (NEMA) and International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) warned that “the reported reprogramming wantonly risks the ability for emergency managers to effectively respond to unforeseen events.”
In their statement, NEMA and IAEM noted that the effect might be small from an operations standpoint, but “any funds siphoned from the DRF reduce those funds immediately available to fight wildland fires, preposition equipment for hurricanes, and assist communities across the nation in advance of a known disaster.”
Other experts believe that FEMA’s funding is adequate despite this reprogramming but warn that predicting future needs for disaster relief is ultimately impossible.
“I would agree with FEMA’s current assessment, that they’re sitting fine as far as funding is concerned,” said Mark Misczak, former deputy director of FEMA’s Individual Assistance program and a senior managing director at the crisis management firm Witt O’Brien’s. “But future events between now and the end of September could change that. It depends on how many (disasters occur) and the severity.”