Napolitano: FEMA cash crunch shouldn't stop Irene relief efforts (VIDEO)

Disaster aid funds are running low but Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Tuesday that Congress should put Irene relief first.

Michael Bonfigli / The Christian Science Monitor
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano speaks at a Monitor-sponsored breakfast for reporters in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday, Aug. 30.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano is downplaying the danger that hurricane Irene recovery funds will be caught in a congressional budget battle.

Reports suggest that the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) disaster aid fund has less than $800 million in it and will face major new demands from the storm that battered the Eastern part of the US last week.

At a Monitor-sponsored breakfast for reporters Tuesday, Secretary Napolitano was asked about comments made Monday by House majority leader Eric Cantor (R) of Virginia, who told Fox News on Monday that disaster assistance funds “are not unlimited and we have we have to offset that” with cuts elsewhere.

Napolitano responded: "That should not be the first concern of the Congress. And I don’t think it is." She added that "the first concern of the Congress is what do we need to protect the safety and the security of the people that we are all privileged to represent.”

She noted that historically Congress has paid for diastaster assistance though supplemental requests as the need arises.

In his Fox appearance, Representative Cantor added that “we will find the money if there is a need for additional money.” But while Cantor wants to find offsetting budget cuts elsewhere, members of the Democratic controlled Senate take a different view.

Senate majority whip Richard Durbin of Illinois, the body’s No. 2 ranking Democrat, said Tuesday that if Cantor “believes that we can nip and tuck the rest of the federal budget and somehow take care of disasters, he is totally out of touch with reality.”

A provision in the debt deal Congress passed before adjourning for the August recess allows Congress to pass several billion dollars in additional disaster aid without cutting budgets elsewhere.

The cost of Irene is not yet known. “We know that Irene is going to be a very expensive storm,” Napolitano said. “The assessments are now being made. And I would caution against putting a number on Irene. I think it is too soon.”

Even before Irene, FEMA's disaster assistance account was short between $2 billion and $4.8 billion for the coming year, according to figures the agency submitted to Congress earlier this year.

Material from the Associated Press was used in preparing this report.

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