Disaster Preparedness & Recovery

Hurricane Irene Causes Funding Diversion, Flooding in its Wake

As eastern states begin disaster assessments and continue flood response, FEMA is forced to divert money from previous disasters to focus on the response to Irene.

Although Hurricane Irene was downgraded to a post-tropical cyclone on the evening of Sunday, Aug. 28, ongoing flooding in numerous states on the Eastern Seaboard has required governments at all levels to remain in disaster mode.

“Many people have said that this disaster wasn’t as bad as expected, but we all know that many communities are suffering from some pretty significant flooding and, of course, wind damage and widespread power outages all the way from North Carolina through New England,” said Charley Shimanski, senior vice president of disaster services for the American Red Cross, during a call with the media on Monday, Aug. 29. He said the American Red Cross was operating in nearly 340 shelters and “since Friday alone we’ve had more than 48,000 overnight shelter stays in relief operations in more than a dozen coastal states.”

FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate said many of the disaster-related activities were moving into the recovery phase as states began assessing the amount of damage caused by Hurricane Irene. Fugate cited examples of FEMA’s assistance to states, including providing space and additional communications for Vermont after its Emergency Operations Center was inoperable following a flash flood on Aug. 28.

Previous weather events, combined with rainfall from the hurricane, contributed to the flooding. “Our antecedent conditions, the soil moisture and stream flow conditions preceding Irene put us in a very vulnerable position,” said David Vallee, hydrologist in charge at the National Weather Service’s Northeast River Forecast Center, during the call. Vallee said thunderstorm activity throughout eastern New York, northern New Jersey, southwest New England, and central and southern Vermont, left streams and rivers in the region at a higher than normal levels. He said that at one point during the height of the event, his office, which forecasts nearly 200 locations of moderate- to large-size rivers, had 81 locations flood at once.

And the flooding isn’t over yet. Vallee said a couple of rivers haven’t crested yet, including the Hudson in New York in Troy and Albany, the middle and lower Connecticut River Valley from northern Vermont and northern New Hampshire to Middletown, Conn. “While the flash flood threat — which has been equally as devastating — has for the most part ended, we still have some of the moderate size and larger rivers that still will take all of today [Aug. 29] to crest,” Vallee said. “And in the case of Connecticut, we’re not likely to see the rivers crest and reach their highest river elevation until midweek.”

As states begin damage assessments, early estimates indicated that Hurricane Irene left billions of dollars of damage in its wake. Reuters reported that New Jersey alone may have suffered tens of billions of dollars in damage, according to Gov. Chris Christie.

Fugate said FEMA implemented Immediate Needs Funding in response to the hurricane. According to FEMA, Immediate Needs Funding activities typically include “debris removal, emergency protective measures, and removal of health and safety hazards. The funding may be used to cover such costs as overtime payroll, equipment costs, materials purchases and contracts when these costs are incurred for emergency work.”

Fugate said when FEMA reaches a point at which it needs to preserve funding in the Disaster Relief Fund, it will discontinue work from previous disasters. Therefore funds that would have gone to repair and rebuild areas — like tornado-ravaged Joplin, Mo. — will be redirected to cover disaster relief related to Hurricane Irene. However, Fugate said the individual assistance programs will continue to be fully funded as people register for support.

“We continue to fund all of the emergency protective measures that the states and locals have taken in responding to these disasters; we continue to fund all of the cleanup activities,” Fugate said, adding that, “If any work had not been submitted yet for permanent work — and this will be the repairs and rebuilding — we will not be able to fund those based upon our remaining dollars as we are now responding to Hurricane Irene.”

He said current damage estimates are being worked out with the White House.

Elaine Pittman  |  Associate Editor

Elaine Pittman is the associate editor of Emergency Management magazine. She covers topics including public safety, homeland security and lessons learned. Pittman is also the associate editor for Government Technology magazine. She can be reached via email and @elainerpittman on Twitter.

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