NBC's 'Today' Sees House GOP to Blame For Lack of FEMA Funding

At the top of Wednesday's NBC Today, co-host Matt Lauer warned: "Record flooding in the wake of Irene leading to new evacuations and dramatic rescues across the Northeast....As FEMA's disaster fund runs dangerously low." Moments later he announced the agency was "running into a serious money crunch because of Irene and in-fighting in Washington."

In a later report, correspondent Tom Costello singled out those responsible for the "infighting": "You can blame politics and the new budget realities. The Republican-controlled House already voted to give FEMA another $1 billion this fiscal year, but that increase is tied to budget cuts elsewhere. So Senate Democrats haven't acted."

After playing a sound bite of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor calling for spending cuts to offset the increase in FEMA's budget, Costello noted: "In one week, Cantor's own state of Virginia was hit by both an earthquake and a hurricane."

Costello concluded: "While no one is suggesting FEMA doesn't need the money to respond to this year's mounting disasters, it may come at the expense of other government programs....For Republicans, this is a matter of paying for the emergency but cutting back elsewhere. But Matt, 33 times in the past Congress has approved money for disaster relief without cutting from other areas of the budget."

Following Costello's report, Lauer interviewed FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate, and fretted:

You don't have to be a math whiz to realize that the numbers don't add up here. You've got about $800 million in the disaster fund right now. Bills from Irene are already coming in at estimates of some $7 billion....you need Congress to act and get more money into your coffers. But as we've seen lately – although Tom Costello says 33 times in the past Congress has increased fund for FEMA without cuts – we know that these are different times and Congress doesn't act quickly on anything dealing with spending right now. Are you worried about that?

Fugate side-stepped Lauer's politically-charged question described how FEMA was "worried about the people that we're working to help right now begin the immediate recovery."

Lauer continued to urge Fugate to condemn Congress: "But what is your message to Congress, that's going to take this up when they come back from their vacation?" Fugate replied: "In this country, Americans have always come to the aid of other Americans in a crisis and disaster. That's our job. That's what we do. That's who we are. FEMA's doing its job."

Lauer followed up by implying some way of securing future funding by going around Congress: "In the past, FEMA has run short of funds before. As we mentioned, the Congress has generally come through. Does the system itself need to be changed or fixed, Administrator Fugate, so that this doesn't happen in the future?" Fugate deferred to the existing process: "...we look at these large-scale disasters as something that's hard to budget for. This is a question that's best left to the appropriators and to those that deal with these issues."  


Here is a full transcript of the August 31 segment:

7:00AM ET TEASE:

MATT LAUER: Extraordinary despair. Record flooding in the wake of Irene leading to new evacuations and dramatic rescues across the Northeast. While out in the Atlantic, tropical storm Katia could turn into a hurricane today. As FEMA's disaster fund runs dangerously low.

7:01AM ET TEASE:

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE: And when you see images like these one's from Patterson, New Jersey, you realize just how long it's going to take to rebuild entire communities.

LAUER: Unfortunately, those flood waters are actually rising in some areas, not falling this morning. Vermont has its own dire situation to deal with. Those thousands of people stranded by washed out roads and bridges. And FEMA, the agency that deals with these disasters, is running into a serious money crunch because of Irene and in-fighting in Washington. We're going to have more on that in a live report just ahead.

7:07AM ET SEGMENT:

LAUER: As rescue crews deal with the immediate impact of Irene, there are new questions in Washington about whether FEMA has enough money to deal with this disaster. We're going to talk about that with the agency's administrator in just a moment. But first, NBC's Tom Costello is in Washington with more. Tom, good morning to you.

[ON-SCREEN HEADLINE: The Aftermath of Irene; Is FEMA Running Out of Money?]

TOM COSTELLO: Hi, Matt. This comes, of course, just as hurricane season actually heats up. Simply put, FEMA is running out of money. The shortfall could climb to $5 billion. So, it's putting a temporary halt to pay for rebuilding projects in other disaster zones, from Joplin to Tuscaloosa, even Katrina. With Irene's path of destruction stretching from North Carolina to Vermont, President Obama offered a promise on Tuesday.

BARACK OBAMA: As a government, we're going to make sure that states and communities have the support they need so their folks can recover.

COSTELLO: But in a year of mounting natural disasters, from snowstorms and historic floods to catastrophic tornadoes, FEMA's budget is stretched thin. Now less than $800 million in the disaster relief fund, and everyone is lining up for help.

DAVE WESSEL [MAYOR, DUCK, NC] : Like any town in any county, our coffers are a little bit bare at the moment. We didn't really budget for a major clean-up like this.

COSTELLO: So to pay for the food, water, and ongoing emergency operations associated with Irene, FEMA is freezing new requests from state and local governments rebuilding from past disasters. That means if there were a new request for a school in tornado-ravaged Joplin, a bridge in Tuscaloosa or a project in Katrina's wake, all would be on hold for now.

CRAIG FUGATE: For any projects that have not come in for approval, we're not going to be able to fund those at this point. We're going to postpone those.

COSTELLO: Postpone, not cancel. You can blame politics and the new budget realities. The Republican-controlled House already voted to give FEMA another $1 billion this fiscal year, but that increase is tied to budget cuts elsewhere. So Senate Democrats haven't acted. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor on Fox News:

ERIC CANTOR [REP. R-VA]: Yes, there's a federal role. Yes, we're going to find the money. We're just going to need to make sure that there are savings elsewhere to continue the to do so.

COSTELLO: In one week, Cantor's own state of Virginia was hit by both an earthquake and a hurricane.

BOB MCDONNELL [GOVERNOR, R-VA]: There's widespread damage from Vermont to South Carolina. This is going to be a big price tag.

COSTELLO: While no one is suggesting FEMA doesn't need the money to respond to this year's mounting disasters, it may come at the expense of other government programs. The Senate is expected to take up FEMA's funding when it returns next week. For Republicans, this is a matter of paying for the emergency but cutting back elsewhere. But Matt, 33 times in the past Congress has approved money for disaster relief without cutting from other areas of the budget. Back to you.

LAUER: Alright, Tom Costello. Tom, thank you very much. Craig Fugate is the administrator of FEMA. Administrator Fugate, good morning, thanks for joining us.

CRAIG FUGATE: Good morning.

LAUER: You don't have to be a math whiz to realize that the numbers don't add up here. You've got about $800 million in the disaster fund right now. Bills from Irene are already coming in at estimates of some $7 billion. So if I have been flooded out of my home in New Jersey or I've lost a business in Vermont, can I count on FEMA?

FUGATE: For the individual citizens, yes, we have not stopped doing that. What we have done is just doing the permanent work – repair work. We're doing the emergency work, the life-saving activities and all of those actiiies are still ongoing.

LAUER: You still – you need Congress to act and get more money into your coffers. But as we've seen lately – although Tom Costello says 33 times in the past Congress has increased fund for FEMA without cuts – we know that these are different times and Congress doesn't act quickly on anything dealing with spending right now. Are you worried about that?

FUGATE: I'm worried about the people that we're working to help right now begin the immediate recovery. We've got a job here to do at FEMA, we're going to stay focused on it. We're working with the White House on the funds we're going to need. But we're focused right now on this initial response and being prepared for the next disaster.

LAUER: Yeah but, I understand that, and it is the people who need the help that you should be paying attention to. But what is your message to Congress, that's going to take this up when they come back from their vacation?

FUGATE: In this country, Americans have always come to the aid of other Americans in a crisis and disaster. That's our job. That's what we do. That's who we are. FEMA's doing its job. We're going to keep working and supporting the governors and citizens that have survived this disaster. So we're doing our job.

LAUER: In the past, FEMA has run short of funds before. As we mentioned, the Congress has generally come through. Does the system itself need to be changed or fixed, Administrator Fugate, so that this doesn't happen in the future?

FUGATE: Well, in this country, again, we look at these large-scale disasters as something that's hard to budget for. This is a question that's best left to the appropriators and to those that deal with these issues. FEMA's doing its job, we're working. But again, Americans have always come to other Americans, whether it's Katrina, the hurricanes I went through in Florida, the earthquakes on the west coast, all disasters, when they get to this point, we've always, as a country, have come to each other's aid.

LAUER: You've been through Vermont, you've taken a look at the damage there. You've been through upstate New York and seen what happened there as a result of Irene. I know you're going to be spending some time in New Jersey today. What's your overall assessment?

FUGATE: That this was not a coastal impact. This was a flood event and a power outage. And the flood damages here are very dramatic. And again, we're working hard with our state partners as they focus on life safety as we get ready to support the recovery.

LAUER: FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate. Mr. Fugate, thank you very much for your time.

FUGATE: Thank you.

Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen is a News Analyst for MRC