Senators expect FEMA will need more money as Hurricane Michael approaches Florida

    Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., speaks to Sinclair Broadcast Group on Capitol Hill on Oct. 10, 2018. (SBG)

    Senators whose constituents are in the path of Hurricane Michael said Wednesday they are confident the Federal Emergency Management Agency will have the resources necessary to respond to the storm.

    As the Category 4 storm barreled toward the Florida Panhandle, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., warned areas east of the eye of the hurricane, including Apalachicola, could see water surges of up to 12 to 13 feet and winds of 130 to 140 miles per hour. With landfall expected around Panama City Wednesday afternoon, areas west of the eye like Pensacola must also be prepared for high winds and rising waters.

    “Further west will receive some considerable wind and some storm surge but not anything like it’s going to be east of the hurricane eye,” Nelson said.

    According to Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., the flat terrain in the southwestern portion of Georgia may allow storm surges to reach further inland once they hit the beach there.

    “The amount of flooding could be big,” Isakson said. “We could lose some crops that haven’t been harvested yet. There’s potential for significant financial damage, not to mention property damage by wind. So, it could be a tough storm.”

    Nelson said he had met with a representative from FEMA about preparations for the hurricane and its aftermath.

    “FEMA is there and ready and prepared,” he said, “and what will happen after the storm, FEMA will use its resources immediately available but we’ll have to come back and do an emergency funding bill to give FEMA more money.”

    Isakson does not anticipate problems getting appropriations for FEMA through Congress.

    “We’ll be ready,” he said. “We always have been.”

    FEMA has burned through its regular budget and returned to Congress seeking more money in the wake of disasters nearly every year in the last decade. It did so several times in 2017 to fund the responses to hurricanes in Florida, Texas, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands and a spate of wildfires in the Pacific Northwest.

    In recent years, some have proposed reforming FEMA’s funding so money is set aside in a permanent account and it can withdraw what it needs when a storm hits instead of constantly requiring emergency appropriations. Nelson sees possible benefits to putting funds in a bank-like account for the agency.

    “The funding last year was done in three major chunks over a period of time. Having a bank FEMA could automatically draw on is a good idea,” he said.

    Isakson understands the appeal of that approach, but he prefers the current method of authorizing exactly what FEMA needs to respond to specific emergencies when they occur.

    “That’s probably the best way because then you’re not tied to a specific number, but you’re tied to the number that’s actually true in terms of what damage the state has,” he said.

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