FEMA finds extra disaster aid money just in time

WASHINGTON - Faced with the imminent possibility of running out of money this week, the Federal Emergency Management Agency scoured every financial nook and cranny to come up with enough money to keep its disaster relief fund in the black for a few more days. Congress has been fighting over possible fixes.

The search yielded about $40 million left over from projects to rebuild infrastructure damaged disasters that occurred before August's Hurricane Irene. The newly found cash, announced Monday, means the agency's disaster aid arm will likely be solvent until the end of the budget year on Friday. As of Tuesday, FEMA had about $175 million available and spends an average of about $35 million a day.

Rachel Racusen, a FEMA spokeswoman, said the search for cash is nothing new for FEMA. Officials have found about $180 million this month and nearly $2 billion this fiscal year.

"Our goal has always been to extend the balance of the Disaster Relief Fund for as long as possible," Racusen said. "Without these recoveries ... FEMA would have run out of disaster funding this week, forcing us to begin shutting down disaster response operations."

FEMA has been trying to avoid such a shutdown since August. It stepped up its efforts to find extra money in the wake of Hurricane Irene in late August.

For weeks, Democrats in Congress have been pushing for more disaster aid and had been asking for a $3.7 billion deal, which would include $1 billion for remainder of this budget year.

Republicans insisted that deal would require $1 billion in offsetting cuts in Energy Department loan programs favored by Democrats.

Then FEMA announced Monday that it would have enough money to last the week, eliminating the impasse. Now the agency is likely to get $2.65 billion as part of a continuing resolution that would keep the government funded until November 18.

Besides hunting in old disaster accounts for extra money, the agency also put limits on spending for some recovery projects, including infrastructure repairs from disasters such as hurricanes Katrina and Rita that hit the Gulf Coast in 2005. In late August, FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate announced that the agency would limit disaster aid money to "immediate needs," including repaying states for debris removal and giving individual victims financial help.

The move meant that about $400 million in public assistance projects was put on hold.

Earlier this month, the Obama administration also asked Congress for $500 million in emergency funding.

If the funding bill is passed, FEMA expects to resume funding both new and old disaster projects.

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