Hurricane Harvey has left thousands of people displaced and done billions of dollars of damage in Texas and Louisiana. Hurricane Irma is threatening more catastrophe as the Category 5 storm barrels towards Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Florida. And government resources to respond to the storms are being spread increasingly thin.
"The biggest problem right now that FEMA faces is not just staffing, it's funding," said Craig Fugate, who ran the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) under former President Barack Obama and handled emergency management in Florida under former Governor Jeb Bush.
The House of Representatives on Wednesday voted in favor of the $7.85 billion in Hurricane Harvey relief funds requested by the Trump administration, the bulk of which would replenish the depleted coffers of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). President Donald Trump later in the day said he had accepted congressional Democratic leaders' proposal to tie relief funds to a three-month extension of the debt ceiling. Republicans will have to agree to the deal, and the Senate will have to pass an amended bill before the money can be released.
President Donald Trump on Wednesday took to Twitter to gawk at the size of Irma and tout the government's response to the pair of storms.
Watching Hurricane closely. My team, which has done, and is doing, such a good job in Texas, is already in Florida. No rest for the weary!- Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 6, 2017
But efforts are far from over.
There are currently more than 31,000 federal employees, including 4,000 FEMA staff, working in support of Harvey recovery efforts, according to a FEMA spokesperson.
FEMA headquarters as well as three of its East Coast regional offices have been activated for Irma. Over 700 federal staff have already been deployed in preparation for the storm, which has clocked sustained winds of 185 miles per hour and is among the strongest hurricanes ever recorded. It hit Barbuda, St. Martin and Anguilla on Wednesday and, while its path is uncertain, it could turn toward Florida by the weekend.
A state of emergency has already been declared by the governors in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and Florida.
The American Red Cross has begun issuing preparedness messaging for residents on where to take shelter and how to get ready, according to a FEMA-provided list outlining federal efforts on Irma.
The Environmental Protection Agency has closed down offices in Irma's path and put out communications in English and Spanish about ways to prepare, and the Department of Energy has responders pre-positioned with FEMA teams in areas such as Puerto Rico and St. Croix. The National Guard is in the process of deploying teams to affected areas and readying additional civil support, communications, medical and security teams if necessary. The National Park Service in the U.S. Virgin Islands began closing facilities there on September 1 and anticipates sending personnel there before the storm to help clear roads.
The Department of Homeland Security's National Protection and Programs Directorate is preparing to deploy communications representatives to the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, and the Social Security Administration has closed its offices in both locales. The U.S. Geological Survey is planning for and installing flood sensors in potentially affected areas.
Efforts are underway at the state level as well. Florida officials have begun to order evacuations and say more could come. "We can rebuild your home. We can't rebuild your life," Florida Governor Rick Scott said in an appearance on Good Morning America on Wednesday. "Prepare and take care of your family."
In the backdrop of Irma's approach is Congress' return to work in Washington, D.C., this week and the urgent need it pass a package to deliver funding to Harvey recovery efforts and FEMA.
If the House FEMA funding bill does not pass the Senate and get the president's signature, FEMA could run out of money by Friday, according to a report from Bloomberg citing an unnamed Senate aide.
Fugate recalled in 2011 preparing for the possibility of FEMA running out of money while responding to Hurricane Irene. "We had to figure out how we were going to shut down all of our recovery and all of our response operations," he said. "There are technically prohibitions against spending money that Congress has not appropriated."
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) on Wednesday made an offer to support emergency relief funding for Harvey victims if it comes with a three-month increase to the U.S. debt limit, another pressing item on the Congressional agenda this month. President Trump told reporters he had agreed to the deal later in the day.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said he would support the president's decision and try to get 60 votes to move forward. "[President Trump's] feeling was that we needed to come together to not create a picture of divisiveness at a time of genuine national crisis," he said.
Earlier in the day, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) slammed the Democrats' proposal as a "ridiculous idea" in a briefing with reporters. "We've got all this devastation in Texas. We've got another unprecedented hurricane about to hit Florida. And they want to play politics with the debt ceiling?" he said.
"Congress has to act, and hopefully everything is going smoothly today," Fugate said.
FEMA administrator Brock Long has expressed confidence lawmakers will do what is necessary to get response funds passed. "Congress knows what they need to do to be able to give us the enduring authority to push forward," he said in an interview with CBS Wednesday. He also disputed reports that FEMA is out of money. "We're not, and we're not going to let money get in the way of saving lives, either."
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