Flood victims escape from Harvey in the back of a heavy duty truck after being evacuated from their homes in Houston, Aug. 28. | David J. Phillip / AP
By Mark Gruenberg / 08.30.2017
When it comes to the federal role and federal aid responding to hurricanes and other natural disasters, Republican President Donald Trump says one thing, but his budget—and his chief of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)—say quite another.
And as if that wasn’t enough, there’s another monkey wrench in determining how much money will be available to help future disaster victims: Trump’s Mexican border wall.
With Hurricane Harvey still drowning the Texas Gulf Coast, and threatening Louisiana, too, Trump is praising first responders, FEMA, and the volunteers who are rushing to aid the tens of thousands of people driven from their homes. He also told an August 28 press conference he’d ask lawmakers for emergency added appropriations—more money—to aid Harvey’s victims.
But his budget proposed cutting future federal cash for people to put their lives back together and for state and local governments to help regions rebuild disaster-smashed and storm-wrecked infrastructure. And Trump wants the other levels of government to chip in more money for rebuilding, too.
Congress may not agree with him on that. The only lawmakers to vote on FEMA funds so far rejected Trump’s request for funding cuts. But in that same money bill, they inserted the first $1.6 billion down payment to build his controversial wall along the U.S.-Mexico border—a wall roundly condemned by Latinos, border landowners, and, most importantly, Senate Democrats, who could block it.
Trump flew to Texas on August 29 to inspect Harvey’s damage to Houston, Corpus Christi, and nearby areas. The slow-moving hurricane/tropical storm is now making landfall in southwest Louisiana, where waters are already rising. At least 40 inches of rain, plus high winds, flooded Texan sewer systems, low-lying homes, and land, especially in Houston and Galveston, which are barely above sea level. Thirty people have died.
And Harvey shut down much of the nation’s oil industry, notably refineries concentrated in the Houston-Galveston ship channel and drilling platforms off the Texas-Louisiana coast. Government and industry officials say U.S. refining capacity is already down 12 percent.
The impact of the deluge quickly overwhelmed Texas officials, even with outside help of FEMA and other states. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner asked residents to shelter in place until they could be rescued. He said trying to evacuate the entire 6.3-million-person metro area would be impossible.
As in other disasters, FEMA rushed in to help coordinate the response. On-site officials, notably Gov. Greg Abbott, R-Texas, say the agency has done a good job so far. But FEMA’s Trump-appointed director, Brock Long, told Bloomberg News in a recent interview that states and cities must shoulder more of the rebuilding costs in future years. “I don’t think the taxpayer should reward risk going forward,” Long, a veteran disaster relief official, said.
And he specifically targeted the federal flood insurance program, which subsidizes homeowners’ insurance in flood-prone high-risk areas—and has been criticized for letting homeowners rebuild and rebuild in chronic flood plains. The flood insurance program expires September 30.
Only 119,000 Houston homeowners have federal flood insurance, down 11 percent from the year before, the Associated Press reported. And in Houston, like the rest of the country, they’re a minority.
Trump’s budget says the same thing
President Trump in Texas yesterday treated a meeting with flood victims like a campaign rally, exclaiming: “What a crowd, what a turnout.” Reporters heard no mention of the dead, dying, or displaced Texans. | Evan Vucci / AP
Trump wanted to cut the federal budget for disaster relief—the aid that goes to families in distress from Harvey and similar disasters—from $7.017 billion in the year ending September 30 to $6.793 billion in the new fiscal year, which starts October 1. He wanted to cut grants to governments to battle the impact of disasters from $2.762 billion in the current fiscal year to $1.901 billion in the new fiscal year. His budget notes FEMA has an “unobligated balance”—budgetese for unspent leftover money—from this year of $815 million. The budget was crafted before Harvey hit, however.
A Trump administration budget summary said the total cut in state and local disaster aid would be $697 million. More importantly, it added disaster grants “must provide more-measurable results” and “ensure the federal government is not supplanting other stakeholders’ responsibilities”—in other words, not taking over for state and local governments.
“For that reason, the budget proposes establishing a 25 percent grant match” from state and local governments “for grants that currently require no match.” The aim, Long told Bloomberg, is to force state and local governments to plan in advance to avoid the risk and damage of flooding by better zoning and land-use planning. The Democratic Obama administration’s FEMA chief pushed the same idea, but it met resistance from homeowners and died last year.
The Republican-run House Appropriations Committee is the sole group of politicians to vote so far on Trump’s disaster spending request, and they rejected his cuts, keeping both disaster programs at current spending levels. Within FEMA’s overall disaster spending, they also rejected his demand to kill all $177.5 million for flood plain mapping and $120 million for the Emergency Food and Shelter Program.
But the committee approved, in the same money bill, the cash for Trump’s Mexican wall. That forced its Democrats to oppose the whole funding bill, which passed on a 30-22 party-line vote.
The wall, needless to say, is unpopular in Congress, which rejected it in their money bill to keep the government going through the end of this fiscal year. Yet Trump again threatened, in an August 28 press conference, to shut the entire government down if he doesn’t get the money for it starting on October 1.
The radical right congressional Freedom Caucus, which forced Congress to cut other programs to pay for aid to victims of Hurricane Sandy in New York and New Jersey, may try the same tactic again. Nevertheless, lawmakers from the two northeastern states will vote to aid Harvey’s victims. But they remember the Freedom Caucus’ moves – and the fact that most Texas Republican representatives opposed aiding the Sandy victims.
“I won’t abandon Texas the way Ted Cruz did New York,” Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., tweeted. “One bad turn doesn’t deserve another.”
When Trump released his budget in March, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., called the border wall, “ineffective,” adding that it “would not increase safety and is profoundly expensive.” Schumer’s Democrats, if they stick together, have enough votes to maintain a filibuster against any money bill with the border wall. And letting flood insurance “lapse during hurricane season would be irresponsible,” Schumer added on August 28.