Flash Flooding in New England Prompts Budget Debate

In the aftermath of Irene, funding shortages force FEMA to take money from tornado victims to provide hurricane aid

It had been raining for several hours on Evening Song Farm, a 100-acre plot of land in the valley between Button Hill and Burnt Mountain, in the shadow of Killington's ski slopes. David Hibbard Rode was working on a cabin he'd spent several months building by hand when he noticed the creek below the building — the creek that normally ran as shallow as 6 inches — rapidly rising. As he ran back to the farm house, the water chased him into the fields, washing away the topsoil and swamping the farm machinery. Rapids replaced the tomatoes and onions as the tiny creek rose 12 feet.

Flash floods like this one prompted President Obama to declare a state of emergency in Vermont on Monday morning. All weekend, homes, roads and bridges washed out as it rained over seven inches. While Vermont Emergency Management attempted to keep up with the damage, including relocating their own headquarters after the Winooski River flooded their building, utility crews were trapped with customers by the waters. More than 50,000 people lost power, and although the Central Vermont Public Service Corporation has brought in crews from as far away as Illinois, it may be weeks before all service is restored.

By the time Irene hit New England, it had been downgraded to a tropical storm, with winds 35 miles per hour slower than when it first made landfall in North Carolina. But by many measures, Vermont fared worse than the coastal states. As Irene blew west, it emptied over areas that were already saturated from an unusually wet spring. Communities like Montpelier and Barre, still recovering from flash floods in May, were particularly at risk.

In the wake of the more than $6 billion dollars of destruction, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) set up a distribution center on Tuesday at Camp Johnson in Colchester, Vt. with food, blankets, and emergency supplies. With more than 260 roadways still washed out, helicopters will airdrop supplies to communities unreachable by land.

Yet the question of who will pay for even this short-term aid remains unclear. Even before the hurricane, FEMA was already over-budget for the year by at least $2 billion, with as little as $8 million in the fund that is responsible for responding to any federally declared disaster.

FEMA is balancing aid costs in Vermont by suspending payments for projects in other parts of the country, including Joplin and other towns affected by tornadoes earlier this summer. Senator Roy Blunt, a Republican from Missouri released an angry statement earlier this week saying, "Recovery from hurricane damage on the East Coast must not come at the expense of Missouri's rebuilding efforts. If FEMA can't fulfill its promise to our state because we have other disasters, that's unacceptable."

FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate told the L.A. Times the agency is no longer accepting new long-term repair applications for earlier disasters. Their budget deficit is likely to be compounded as Connecticut — which as of Tuesday morning was still expecting rising water levels with 400,000 customers without power — and New York press for federal assistance also.

In towns with economies still heavily reliant on agriculture, this type of natural disaster is particularly devastating. Evening Song Farm is just one of many in Vermont who have lost their livelihood, and even immediate disaster relief from FEMA may not be enough to help these families get back on their feet. Most flooding is not covered by home insurance, and most insurance that does cover flooding comes from the National Flood Insurance Program — which is a subsidiary of FEMA.

Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, replied to queries about FEMA on Tuesday, saying that while disaster aid was "not unlimited" and expenditures "have to be offset," Congress would do "what we need to protect the safety and the security of the people." She added that Congress had made supplemental budget requests in the past for disaster relief.

As recovery continues, responses have become politicized. Michelle Bachman told a Florida audience on Sunday, "I don't know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians. We've had an earthquake; we've had a hurricane." She concluded God's message was, "We've got to rein in the spending." House Majority Leader Eric Canter told Fox News on Monday the GOP agreed more funds were needed for FEMA, but that the House wouldn't approve of any additional spending until the Senate approved more budget cuts in the ongoing debt debates. Ron Paul told NBC News on Friday he doesn't see the need for a federal response to the hurricane, saying FEMA is "a great contribution to deficit financing."

It remains to be seen how Americans generally, let alone those affected by the hurricane specifically, will respond to the idea of austerity in disaster relief.