WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. federal agency in charge of disaster relief, under intense pressure to show the Obama administration can quickly respond to the devastation caused by the massive storm Sandy, said it has plenty of cash to deliver timely aid to the millions of people struggling to recover.
The head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency also noted on Tuesday that President Barack Obama fast-tracked funds to areas hardest hit as the agency seeks to prove it can smoothly work with the states to give basic relief, just a week before Election Day.
FEMA director Craig Fugate said on a media call on Tuesday that it was a rare move for Obama to declare New York and New Jersey areas of “major disaster” even as the catastrophe was still unfolding.
That gives those states direct federal financial assistance to individuals, such as owners of homes and businesses, who can apply to FEMA for aid. Obama made another such declaration for Connecticut Tuesday evening.
“This is extraordinary in that generally we do more thorough assessments and it often times will take longer,” Fugate told reporters.
Millions of people were left reeling after Sandy crashed ashore on Monday evening in New Jersey. The biggest storm to hit the country in generations left a wide swath of the eastern United States struggling with epic flooding and extensive power outages, and the death toll climbed to at least 45.
The president has also authorized “emergency declarations” for a handful of other states stretching from West Virginia to Massachusetts, and the District of Colombia. These declarations authorize FEMA to coordinate disaster relief efforts and provide a baseline of $5 million in federal help; the states can negotiate for more.
FEMA has a little more than $7 billion that it could quickly access to provide relief to those impacted, and could get ahold of another $11 billion with congressional action.
Fugate, a former paramedic and firefighter who was previously Florida’s top emergency management official, said that FEMA has the necessary funds to respond to Sandy.
Fugate gave no indication on Tuesday about how long the cleanup of Sandy damage would take. FEMA is still working on projects from last year’s Hurricane Irene, and Sandy appears to have caused billions of dollars in damages — twice or even three times the losses of Irene, according to catastrophe forecasting companies.
FEMA says its roots trace back more than 200 years to the Congressional Act of 1803, considered the first disaster relief law, which gave aid to a New Hampshire town ravaged by a fire.
The agency is generally seen as a coordinating body that provides assistance to first responders, and as a main clearinghouse that gives state and local authorities the money needed to provide for their citizens’ basic needs and also rebuild their communities.
Seven years ago, FEMA became a prime political target after the agency and former President George W. Bush were widely maligned for their slow-footed response to Hurricane Katrina.
This time around, even before Sandy had made landfall, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich took a shot at Obama’s reaction. He noted on ABC’s “This Week” that the president was cancelling campaign events because of Sandy, but had not done so after four Americans were killed in an attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya.
In the face of such criticism, Obama is taking a proactive approach, announcing on Tuesday that he plans to visit New Jersey on Wednesday with Republican Governor Chris Christie, a frequent Obama critic who has heavily campaigned for Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
FEMA is also going to great lengths to describe to the public how it plans to help.
Currently more than 1,900 FEMA personnel are working to support disaster response and recovery operations, FEMA said in an extensive press release late Tuesday. These include search and rescue, “situational awareness,” communications and logistical support, it said.
At all times FEMA also maintains basic commodities, including millions of liters of water, millions of meals and hundreds of thousands of blankets, the agency’s statement said. Many of these commodities have been moved to U.S. military bases on the East Coast to help address Sandy, it said.
Unlike past major disasters, FEMA has considerable resources available to it — a total of nearly $19 billion.
Fugate has mentioned $3.6 billion in available funds for Sandy. But the congressional aides said that represents only about half of the $7.1 billion appropriated under a six-month, stop-gap funding measure passed in September.
The Obama administration has the authority to bring forward the full $7.1 billion immediately, and adding in money left over from a light disaster year in fiscal 2012, this brings immediate spending capacity to $7.8 billion, they said.
Reporting by Susan Cornwell and David Lawder, with additional reporting by Anna Yukhananov, Mark Hosenball and Tabassum Zakaria; Editing by Karey Wutkowski and Lisa Shumaker