FEMA expected to fulfill 2008 flood recovery funding commitments

Federal disaster relief agency announced aid freeze in Hurricane Irene's wake

Cedar Rapids downtown flooding early Friday, June 13, 2008, in southeast Cedar Rapids. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Cedar Rapids downtown flooding early Friday, June 13, 2008, in southeast Cedar Rapids. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Iowa officials don't expect the Federal Emergency Management Agency's decision to freeze disaster aid in the wake of Hurricane Irene to affect the state's recovery from flooding along the Missouri River.

FEMA announced it would freeze disaster aid to parts of the country recovering from tornadoes, drought, flooding and wildfires. The Omaha World-Herald reported that FEMA has enacted similar restrictions when disaster relief funds dipped below $1 billion. The fund current stands at about $800 million after a disaster-filled year that included tornadoes in the South and Midwest, including Joplin, Mo., wildfires in the Southwest, drought and Texas and flooding along the Missouri River.

In Iowa, officials are still trying to determine the impact of FEMA’s move, but expect the agency will carry out its commitments for 2008 flood recovery projects.

That would be consistent with how FEMA has handled previous temporary cash flow shortfalls, according to Bob Josephson, spokesman for FEMA’s regional office in Kansas City.

FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund has run low four time in the last eight or so years, and each time that has triggered an agency funding strategy in which remaining funds are kept for its Immediate Needs Funding program and delayed for longer-term recovery projects until Congress approves additional agency funding, he said.

The funds are delayed; they are not being “eliminated” or “diverted,” according to the agency.

Cedar Rapids Impact: “Right now I don’t think it means a lot to us,” said Joe O’Hern, the city of Cedar Rapids’ director of flood recovery and reinvestment.

Many of the city’s flood-recovery projects already have been “obligated” for funding from FEMA and O’Hern said the city believes funding for those projects will continue as expected.

O’Hern said some city of Cedar Rapids building projects which FEMA has not yet approved in final form and obligated funds for may be subject to a delay, and he cited the city’s plans for a new building to replace the city’s flood-damaged Public Works Building as one such example. But the project is months away, he said.

Iowa Impact: The impact will depend on how long the funds are frozen, but could have as much as a $200 million impact in Iowa, according to John Benson, spokesman for the Iowa Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

“The generic statement we’d make is that the longer the freeze remains in place, the larger the impact will be,” he said Aug. 30.

For example, Benson said if the freeze lasts six months, “our guys telling me you would look at $200 million in funding” being delayed.

“We’ll have to look at what we have in hopper and what we’ve been able to draw down,” he explained.

That could mean larger projects – a sewer project in Cedar Rapids or replacing Hancher on the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City – “may stall out because we can’t draw down fed funds” he said.

Projects that haven’t started may be delayed until the funds are available again, Benson said.

University of Iowa Impact: “The leadership of the University of Iowa remains confident FEMA will fulfill its commitment to the university,” according to UI spokesman Tom Moore.For example, the planning process for replacing Hancher, the Voxman music building and the studios arts building, continues, he said.

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