The potential imminent shutdown of the federal government could have negative consequences for responding to new weather disasters, inspecting hazardous waste sites, and carrying out clean-up efforts at federal Superfund sites, according to Democratic House members.
On Friday, Illinois Democrat Lauren Underwood warned that the lack of funding in the disaster relief fund would cause delays in long-term projects, although staff from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) would still respond to emergencies. Underwood also cautioned that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would cease inspecting most hazardous waste sites, drinking water facilities, and chemical facilities. Additionally, efforts to contain polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and clean up Superfund sites would be affected.
These warnings come after New York experienced heavy rains that caused disruptions in the city’s mass-transit system, flooding in parts of Brooklyn, and a state of emergency declaration by Governor Kathy Hochul.
The potential impact of a federal freeze is significant, especially considering that the primary government relief fund is nearly depleted. In 2023, there have been 23 confirmed weather events related to the climate disaster in the US, each costing at least $1 billion. These events include flooding, severe storms, a tropical cyclone, a wildfire, and a winter storm. This number exceeds the annual average of eight events from 1980 to 2022.
According to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2023 has seen more billion-dollar weather disasters in the US than any other previously recorded year.
FEMA’s spending on disaster aid has significantly increased since 2000, reaching around $10 billion annually. With three months remaining in the year and disaster costs already at $23 billion, FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell testified before the House transportation and infrastructure subcommittee on emergency management, expressing concerns about the agency’s ability to respond to natural disasters in the event of a shutdown. Criswell highlighted decreasing funding levels for the disaster relief fund, climate change mitigation, flood insurance costs, and border security as the agency’s major concerns.
Criswell emphasized the challenges posed by intensified natural disasters throughout the year, occurring in locations unaccustomed to such events. She cited examples such as the Maui wildfires and the California tropical cyclone.
To address immediate needs, Criswell implemented a mandate of $16 billion. The agency has already halted over $1 billion in funding for 1,000 public assistance projects. Meanwhile, the Biden administration is redirecting more funds towards disaster relief rather than reconstruction grants. FEMA has already delayed approximately $2.8 billion, including funds for long-term recovery projects in Florida, Louisiana, and California.
While it is expected that the disaster relief fund will receive a boost, Criswell warned that failure to replenish the fund would leave FEMA unable to respond to new emergencies. She emphasized the importance of adequately funding the Disaster Relief Fund to ensure a prompt response to disasters, facilitate post-disaster rebuilding, and prepare for future disasters.