FEMA could be collateral damage in looming shutdown

By Daniel Bush | 02/25/2015 07:22 AM EST

If the Department of Homeland Security shuts down later this week due to a dispute in Congress over immigration reform, law enforcement agents would continue patrolling the nation’s borders and travelers would still go through security screenings at airports.

But a broad swath of agencies that fall under DHS and carry out non-immigration-related services would be affected by the shutdown, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s ongoing response to recent natural disasters.

Infrastructure funding for active disaster recovery efforts across the country would be temporarily withheld if lawmakers were to allow DHS funding to lapse Friday, a FEMA official said.


Republicans, led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), are scrambling to craft a last-minute deal, but it remains unclear if GOP leaders will bow to pressure from Democrats and pass a "clean" DHS funding bill that does not include provisions aimed at dismantling President Obama’s executive actions on immigration.

With time running out, FEMA is waiting to see if it will wind up as collateral damage in the latest crisis on Capitol Hill.

"A lapse in funding will have a real impact on FEMA’s ability to ensure that a wide range of emergency personnel across the country have the resources they need to do their jobs and keep our communities safer and more secure," FEMA spokeswoman Susan Hendrick told E&E Daily.

The shutdown would furlough thousands of nonessential DHS workers, among them FEMA employees who process federal funds to Native American tribes and state and local governments that help pay for damages incurred during recent disasters.

The so-called public assistance payments, which cover damages to bridges, roads, power stations and other infrastructure, would be placed on hold until DHS reopens, Hendrick said. FEMA would continue dispensing aid and services to individuals who are eligible to receive help for past events that received a presidential disaster declaration.

Emergency management officials in several states said a shortfall in public assistance funds would complicate efforts to recover from floods, earthquakes and storms that took place last year.

"We are talking with FEMA and DHS on a regular basis to see how [the DHS negotiations] are going in D.C.," said Brad Alexander, a spokesman for the California Emergency Management Agency.

California is relying on FEMA to help cover damages from a magnitude-6.0 earthquake that struck the Napa Valley region last August. The earthquake was the largest in the area in 25 years, and six months later, the courthouse and other buildings in the city of Napa remain closed or under repair.

FEMA announced in mid-December that it had already spent $30.8 million on disaster assistance in the area. But Alexander said that in the event of a lengthy shutdown, the state would have to find "other options" to offset the FEMA shortfall, though he did not say what those options would be.

"It would have an impact on the recovery process," Alexander said. "We’re definitely hoping" that Congress avoids a shutdown.

Officials in California aren’t alone. Kristin Devoe, a spokeswoman for the New York State Office of Emergency Management, said it is unlikely that a temporary shutdown would have any "major impacts" on the state.

But a lengthy shutdown "may delay the process of completing estimates and obligations for cost recovery on projects related" to the deadly storm that dumped several feet of snow on the Buffalo region last November, Devoe said.

A shutdown would affect FEMA in other ways, as well. For instance, it would have to cut back on a program — run by the agency’s Center for Domestic Preparedness — that trains 4,100 first responders each month.

And FEMA would be unable to process requests for presidential disaster or emergency declarations "unless the request is determined necessary for the protection of life and property," Hendrick wrote in an email.

The agency was forced to make that call and mobilize some of its furloughed workers when Tropical Storm Karen struck the Gulf Coast during the government shutdown in 2013. During that 16-day shutdown, FEMA furloughed 3,666 employees, or 86 percent of its full-time workforce.

Congress might still avoid a shutdown this time around, by funding DHS either through the end of fiscal 2015 or for the next few weeks or months to give lawmakers longer to reach a final agreement.

But in a sign that some Republicans and Democrats see a shutdown as the likeliest outcome, a group of bipartisan House lawmakers yesterday introduced a bill that would ensure DHS workers will receive retroactive pay if the shutdown happens.