The money is a central point of contention on Capitol Hill, where Congress is considering spending bills to fund the government and avoid a shutdown Saturday. Republicans insist that any new emergency relief not add to the federal deficit. Democrats say tea party Republicans are playing fast and loose with the lives of disaster victims to score political points.
Meanwhile, in places like Nashville, Tenn., Joplin, Mo., and vast parts of New England, the debate over funding the Federal Emergency Management Agency isn't a theoretical exercise by politicos in Washington. Some areas of North Carolina, for example, have let epic post-hurricane swarms of mosquitos overrun their towns, worried that spraying programs won't be reimbursed by FEMA.
On Friday, Senate Democrats quashed a funding bill because it included $1.6 billion in offsetting cuts to a Department of Energy program that promotes the manufacturing of "green" automobiles. On Monday, Senate Democrats are set to respond with a bill that would supplement FEMA funding without budget offsets. But Republicans likely have enough votes to prevent the bill from getting a filibuster-proof majority.
The FEMA amounts are relatively small – $3.6 billion, or about .04 percent of the federal budget. But the fact that they threaten to hold up passage of the $1 trillion spending bill to keep the government fully funded until Nov. 18 has given them outsize importance.
The debate over FEMA funding "really represents the continued dismantling of the welfare state, where government is placing much more responsibility on people to take care of their basic needs – and it's problematic," says James Fraser, who studies disaster mitigation at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. "In many ways, the debate in Congress now is a red herring, a distraction from what's really at stake, which is the lives of many people. The debate seems a little bit misplaced."
In some of those disaster-stricken locales, promised relief funds are already on indefinite hold. Nashville's promise of flood-plain buyouts – to the tune of some $30 million – is tied up because FEMA can't pay what it promised.
And coastal towns in North Carolina, combating record swarms of mosquitos released after the drenching of hurricane Irene last month, have curtailed spraying efforts because they simply don't trust that they'll get their money back.
The North Carolina mosquito spraying fund that is normally replenished with FEMA funds is down to $160,000, which isn't enough to cover the amount needed in Dare County, N.C., alone, officials say.
Along the North Carolina coast, mosquito traps that usually catch 50 mosquitoes a night have caught 14,000 on some nights – an unprecedented amount, according to state mosquito experts. In some places, the swarms have made working outdoors to salvage property and rebuild homes difficult and, potentially, unsafe because of disease concerns.
"It's difficult for me to understand how FEMA recovery money becomes ideological," says Bobby Outten, the county manager in Dare County, which has stopped aerial spraying for mosquitoes because FEMA has been unable to guarantee the county will be reimbursed. "[Congress] needs to get aid out here as quickly as they can because people are suffering while they fight."
He adds: "In the back of your mind, you know that they're going to come through, but in the forefront, when the debate is going on, you really aren't sure what to tell people."
Joplin Mayor Mike Woolston, whose city was heavily damaged by a massive tornado in May, says that even if Congress resolves the funding crisis this week, questions will linger about FEMA's ability to honor its purpose: to help people rebuild from disaster. "The devil's in the details," Mr. Woolston tells the Associated Press. "How long will it take, how much disaster funding will there be?"
Rising costs due to the sheer number of presidential disaster declarations – Obama has declared a record 84 events worthy of FEMA help this year, a record – is something Congress is now forced to confront, especially with the nation's debt topping $14 trillion. For the sixth time in the last decade, the federal government this year stopped paying for long-term recovery projects so it could pay for more immediate needs.
But with eight out of 10 Americans already disapproving of how Congress handled this summer's debt crisis, the FEMA debate seems an unwelcome replay to some. "Yeah, we've had a bad year for disasters, and that means expenses are greater than normal," says Mr. Outten, the Dare County manager. "But FEMA is there for one purpose, and that's to deal with those issues. And if it's not going to deal with them, what's the point of having FEMA?"