WASHINGTON — In the wake of Hurricane Irene's battering of the East Coast, the federal government has frozen certain types of assistance for other disaster-stricken parts of the country, including flood-drenched communities along the Missouri River.
Iowa and Nebraska state officials downplayed the impact of the freeze.
Al Berndt, assistant director of the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency, pointed out that it does not apply to individual assistance payments, which cover needs such as temporary housing. It also does not apply to immediate public projects such as debris removal and emergency protective measures — sandbagging, emergency levee repairs and so forth.
"I'm not that concerned about this," Berndt told The World-Herald.
John Benson, legislative liaison for Iowa Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said that officials there are monitoring the situation but that they "do not anticipate it having a negative impact on the recovery operation."
Federal Emergency Management Agency officials said they have instituted similar freezes previously when the agency's Disaster Relief Fund dipped below about $1 billion.
That relief fund has been drawn down by this disaster-filled year of tornadoes throughout the South and Midwest — including the devastation in Joplin, Mo. — followed by the unprecedented flooding along the Missouri, wildfires in the Southwest and drought in states such as Texas, and now Irene hammering the East Coast.
The fund, which now stands around $800 million, is used to respond to any federally declared disaster, be it a hurricane, flood or tornado.
The agency will continue to tap the fund to make individual assistance payments for disaster survivors and to provide public assistance to states and communities to prepare for or respond to a disaster, according to a FEMA statement. That includes payments for first responders, evacuations and police barricades.
"These restrictions will not impact the aid that any disaster survivors are receiving from FEMA, whether for the recent tornadoes across the Southeast or Joplin, for recent flooding events, or for other disasters," according to a statement by FEMA.
The freeze does apply to "longer-term repair, rebuilding and mitigation projects for previous and current disasters that have not already been submitted by states," according to FEMA.
In the case of Nebraska, the state has estimated its debris removal and emergency protective measures from the floods to be about $56 million, which means FEMA's share is $44 million. Berndt said FEMA has assured him that money is available and not going anywhere.
However, funding is not available for the moment for longer-term needs such as repairing roads and bridges.
Nebraska has about 110 miles of roads — everything from gravel to blacktop — damaged by the floods. That will most likely require millions to fix, but it's still early in the process, Berndt said.
"Any potential impact for us is six, eight, 10 months down the road," Berndt said.
Iowa officials have said it is too early to say how much repairs will cost, particularly for cleanup and damage to Interstates 29 and 680.
Nor can they say when the highways will reopen, because some of the roadways remain flooded, said Bob Younie, state maintenance engineer for the Iowa Department of Transportation.
But long-term repairs aren't their focus at the moment.
"With the Missouri flood, we are focused on reimbursing the emergency work at this time as we have yet to be able to get out and evaluate the permanent repairs that will be needed," said Benson, with the state's emergency management agency. "Once the flooding stops, then we can figure that out."
If Congress replenishes the disaster fund when it returns from recess next month, then the freeze can be lifted.
Of course, that might not be as easy as it sounds.
The request for more disaster money will come as work begins for the supercommittee created by the deal to raise the debt ceiling. That House-Senate panel has the task of coming up with more than $1 trillion in cuts to the federal deficit.
Still, Berndt said the state is operating under the federal laws that govern disaster response and assistance.
He said he's confident that the federal government will eventually come up with the money to cover all of its share of disaster costs.
"Ultimately, the politicians will do what's right," Berndt said.
Contact the writer: