Let’s help Americans help themselves

Published 12:03 am Thursday, September 8, 2011

Kay Hagan is the junior U.S. senator from North Carolina.

Over the past week, I have seen with my own eyes the havoc wreaked by Hurricane Irene in North Carolina.

In Tyrrell County, I met families whose homes were swept away by a tornado.

Across our rural and agricultural communities, North Carolina farmers preparing for fall harvests face devastated crop returns.

At East Carolina University, administrators pointed me to more than a million dollars of repairs. Students, teachers and parents will begin the school year with a host of unexpected distractions and challenges.
Our coastal communities would normally be bustling with tourists. Instead, many fishermen, hotels, restaurants and small businesses are tossing out flood-drenched merchandise and equipment onto growing piles of debris. Their very livelihoods are threatened.

For the North Carolina families, farmers, fishermen, educators, seniors, small businesses and communities struggling to recover, government assistance cannot come fast enough. And it must not leave too quickly.

So what about that assistance for our citizens in need? Unfortunately, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Disaster Relief Fund, which provides assistance to individuals and communities after declared disasters, is running dangerously low on funds. Spending $400 million a month even before Hurricane Irene landed on our shores, the fund is down to $700 million because of an unusually large number of storms, floods, and wildfires. And in anticipation of this shortfall, FEMA is now shifting funds away from vitally needed new projects in previously hard hit areas to the immediate needs of the communities recovering from Irene.

Running from one unresolved disaster to the next is no way to ensure effective recoveries. Soon the debris of Irene will be removed, the damage assessments will be completed, and it will be time for North Carolina’s FEMA-funded recovery projects to begin. But will the next disaster’s immediate needs have to be met first? American victims of natural disasters should not be left to the mercy of a rob-Peter-to-pay Paul system of relief.

Here’s my bottom line: Congress must fully fund Irene recovery efforts now. Let’s look at the facts. The Office of Management and Budget reported Friday that $5.2 billion will be needed to meet the nation’s disaster relief needs for the next fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 — and that does not even include funding for Irene. However, OMB also reported that under the budget deal reached earlier this summer, Congress has the authority to make $11.3 billion available for disaster relief for next year. In other words, Congress is able to meet the entire country’s recovery needs — including Hurricane Irene — without violating the fiscal discipline of the recent deal.

I wrote this week to the bipartisan leadership of the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee urging them to ensure that all emergency funding needs are met – whether in Joplin, Mo., the flooded communities of the Midwest, or the ravaged counties in eastern North Carolina. It takes months, and often years, for communities to recover from disasters. As their representatives, we have a responsibility to provide a reliable, comprehensive program of relief for the duration. To do any less is a dereliction of our duty.

For my part, I will continue to work closely with the Administration and my bipartisan congressional colleagues to keep sufficient aid flowing to all states, including my own beloved North Carolina, that need disaster assistance during these trying times.

I saw something else touring the North Carolina coast this week: Americans relying on one another as their lives were turned upside down by a brutal natural disaster.

Now, Washington needs to come together and do its part.