Trump Wants to Cut FEMA Budget Before the Next Major Hurricane

Update | The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is one of those areas of the government we'd all prefer to never think about, much less deal with personally. But in the wake of Hurricane Harvey's lashing visit to Houston, it's worth taking a moment to recognize the agency—and to wonder where it will stand when the next disaster rolls around.

FEMA, which is stashed away under the Department of Homeland Security, oversees both physical and financial recovery in the wake of disasters (both natural disasters and terrorism) and is meant to coordinate other sections of the government to act more efficiently.

The agency's current administrator, William "Brock" Long, was confirmed for the post by the Senate in June, after this year's hurricane season began, but brings previous experience with hurricanes from Alabama's equivalent agency.

Evacuating west of Houston as floodwaters continue to rise. Erich Schlegel/Getty Images

According to comments Long made in a press conference held early Wednesday, FEMA's priority for at least the next couple days is what's called life-saving and life-sustaining activities. That includes working with the Coast Guard to rescue people, arranging shelters and keeping as many hospitals as possible up and running. Particularly in places like Louisiana, where rain is still falling, they're also working to make sure people on the ground continue to listen for instructions from local officials as water levels eventually crest.

FEMA's coordinating role is crucial here—it's the linchpin that holds together federal employees; other relevant agencies like Health and Human Services; and the Department of Energy, the Coast Guard and National Guard personnel, state agencies and local responders. Although Houston has been drawing the most concern, Harvey has affected people across 50 counties, so coordination is key.

The rescue effort is already huge. Even before the worst of the storm hit, FEMA was gathering drinking water, food and blankets at a temporary base. When 911 call centers were overwhelmed with calls, they were rerouted to the Coast Guard, which has been handling a thousand calls an hour. In Texas alone, more than 230 shelters are open to more than 30,000 people. About 1,800 families have already been placed in hotel and motel rooms across five different states, the fastest way of getting people out of shelters.

Harvey shelters
More than 9,000 people have taken shelter in Houston's convention center. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

FEMA is also poised to offer financial support after people reach out to their insurance providers. As of early Wednesday, more than 195,000 people had filed requests, and the agency had already sent $35 million to survivors.

The next wave of priorities will focus on infrastructure, since that helps people get back to their normal routines. Energy is a key piece—not only have large areas lost power but because of Texas's role as a producer, it's also important to get refineries and power plants back online. Airports, ports, rail lines, industrial facilities and schools are other important targets in the search for normalcy.

Finally, FEMA will start bringing in trailers and temporary housing, although that effort is limited by the amount of time and money needed to produce these shelters.

Houston residents wait in line to buy groceries after Hurricane Harvey. Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

But the response to the next Harvey could face even stricter financial constraints if President Donald Trump gets his budgetary wishes for the 2018 fiscal year, which begins October 1. The president's budget blueprint calls for FEMA's budget for state and local grants to be cut by $667 million, saying that these grants are unauthorized or ineffective.

The program it explicitly calls out as lacking congressional authorization is the Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grant Program, and a second proposed change would require all preparedness grants to be matched in part by non-federal funds. All of FEMA's pre-disaster grants are meant to reduce federal spending after disasters, and according to the agency's website, there's evidence that $1 in mitigation spending saves $4 in later damages.

Trump's budget proposal also calls for the elimination of the National Flood Insurance Program run by FEMA, which provides affordable flood insurance. According to the proposal, the program costs the government $190 million; it is also $25 billion in debt, a number expected to rise rapidly after Harvey. According to The Washington Post, even with the program in place, about 80 percent of people who own homes in the area affected by the storm don't have flood insurance.

During the same press conference where Long spoke, a reporter asked about the funding cuts. The acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security evaded the question, saying that the response team's focus right now was strictly on helping Harvey survivors recover.

Even last year, experts were raising concerns that Houston was unprepared for the ravages of a serious hurricane.

You know what might have helped the city prepare? Mitigation funding.

This post was updated to accurately reflect a budgetary number.