Federal agencies snapped to respond Tuesday to the devastating Oklahoma tornadoes, the first major natural disaster to strike since sequester-related budget cuts took effect in March. Like most agencies, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is having to absorb a 5 percent reduction that will cost its disaster relief fund about $950 million, according to the White House budget office.
Although it’s “too soon” to assess whether the cuts are affecting FEMA’s response, “we’ll be asking that question,” John Hart, a spokesman for Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla,, said in an email. The disaster relief fund currently has about $11.6 billion, Hart said.
FEMA officials could not be reached for comment, but in a news release said they had already dispatched a team to Oklahoma City to coordinate with state and local governments on recovery operations. Also on the scene were urban search and rescue teams and a separate outfit to aid with communications, the release said.
In the wake of Monday’s tornadoes, which killed at least 24 people and obliterated entire neighborhoods, President Obama has designated five Oklahoma counties as disaster areas. Through FEMA and the Small Business Administration, residents and business owners can now qualify for housing asssistance, as well as low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses and pay for rebuilding.
Unknown at this point is whether Congress will be asked to approve additional disaster relief funding. If so, lawmakers could again square off on whether such spending should be offset with cuts in other areas.
Hart called such speculation “premature.” Another prominent lawmaker said the focus should be on responding with “compassion and competence.”
“This is a time for neighbor helping neighbor,” Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., said in a news release. “This is not the time for a ‘budgeteering’ battle.”