WASHINGTON Aug 26 Hurricane Irene is set to
lay siege to cities and states along the Eastern U.S. coast
this weekend and it could continue to pummel their budgets long
after its last raindrop falls.
The costs will quickly mount for seaboard states like
Virginia where Hurricane Irene is expected to hit early
Saturday and could be as strong as Category Three -- a major
hurricane that can damage buildings, destroy mobile homes
and where total power loss can occur.
To prepare, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell put emergency
personnel on 24-hour watch, staffed up hospitals and has the
forestry department at the ready with chainsaws to clear
debris. Local governments are mandating evacuations, with
residents taking to the state's roads and bridges.
Along with those costs, the state will have to continue
working after Hurricane Irene sweeps through, especially along
the coast where flooding could cause major damage.
Scott Pattison, executive director of the National
Association of State Budget Officers, said states will step up
to deal with the crisis.
"The question becomes: what do they end up spending and
what doesn't get money?" he added.
The 2007-2009 recession hit states' budgets hard, leaving
them with fewer funds to respond to emergencies.
In fiscal 2010, 24 states cut their budgets for emergency
management, according to the National Emergency Management
Association. The median budget for responding to crises fell to
$3.3 million from $3.41 million the year before.
Data for the fiscal year that ended in June was not
available. Still, revenue in many states has yet to return to
levels reached before the recession. That means spending on
emergency management likely remained at the lower levels.
Hurricane Floyd ran a similar route to Irene's in 1999,
hitting the coast of North Carolina before making its way into
New England. The storm, a much more powerful Category Five,
caused damage of between $3 billion and $6 billion, according
to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
In 2003, Hurricane Isabel was a Category Two that struck
the Carolinas and moved into Virginia, New Jersey, New York,
Delaware and West Virginia -- many of the same places currently
preparing for Irene. The total damage was $3.37 billion,
according to NOAA.
Hurricane Katrina, which ravaged Gulf states in 2005, was
the costliest hurricane in U.S. history at $81 billion, NOAA
"At this point we're not concerned about costs. We've got
money available for emergency purposes. Right now, we're solely
concerned about public safety," Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell
told reporters on Thursday.
If President Barack Obama declares a state of emergency,
the federal government will reimburse some local dollars for
the Irene costs.
Obama has warned U.S. citizens that it was likely to be an
"extremely dangerous and costly storm".
But states, which just last month cut a total of about $100
billion from their budgets, must pay expenses the federal
government will not cover.
"They're in a zero-sum game and they're in tight budgets,"
North Carolina, where Irene is expected to strike on
Saturday, pulled money from the state's disaster relief funds
and other reserves to patch a budget gap for this fiscal year,
according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
To save money in June 2010, New York, which could
experience its first hurricane in decades this weekend,
consolidated its homeland security, emergency management, fire
control and critical infrastructure offices.
Wind from the storm can down power lines or pull up trees
-- areas that must be immediately addressed by cities and
counties, said Diane Linderman, president-elect of the American
Public Works Association.
"It is a cash flow issue, because you can't wait for the
federal money to come. You have to do the clean-up right away,"
she said. "They have to get their communities up and running or
otherwise it hurts their economy."
Funds put aside for infrastructure upgrades or new capital
works projects may have to go to fixing damage from Irene,
instead, said Linderman.
"It diverts resources. After a storm you have to rethink
what the rest of your year will look like," she said.
Local governments have been stung by falling property
taxes, their primary revenue source, over the last few years
and recently have also endured cuts in aid from the states. For
the budget year that started in July, New Jersey made across
the board spending cuts of 10 percent and then reduced aid to
local governments by $345 million, NCSL said.