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Federal disaster fund depleted to record low

With new hurricane and wildfire seasons beginning, the federal government's disaster-relief fund is nearly empty, and state and local disaster chiefs are raising alarms that help may not be available when they need it.

In a normal year, the Federal Emergency Management Agency's fund spends $2.5-billion on disaster relief. This year President Bush requested $1.8-billion. Congress approved only $800-million, but the administration found an extra $1-billion in leftover accounts. Still, that put only $1.8-billion in the fund.

Now, only $115-million is left, a record low.

It has been a busy year on the disaster front, with winter ice storms, spring floods and February's explosion of the space shuttle Columbia. With three months left in the federal fiscal year, state and local emergency-management executives are begging Congress and Bush to pump more money into the fund.

If that doesn't happen, "I'd be extremely nervous," said James Lee Witt, who gained wide respect for rebuilding FEMA while he was its director in the 1990s.

The Bush administration is considering asking Congress for an emergency budget increase.

FEMA's chief spokesman, Chad Kolton, said there was no danger: "None of this is going to affect our ability to respond. We are still perfectly capable of providing the response (to disasters) that the American people expect and deserve."

Despite such soothing words, the state and local officials on the front lines are worried about what they'll do if there's another hurricane like Andrew, which leveled parts of metro Miami in 1992.

"We're certainly concerned," said J.R. Thomas, the president of the International Association of Emergency Managers. "We dodged a bullet with (Tropical Storm) Bill," which this week dumped nearly 10 inches of rain on the Southeast over three days. "As we get into the season, the lack of funding at FEMA at the moment can certainly affect residents who have to rebuild."

If Bill had been a bit stronger and hit New Orleans' vulnerable seawall, FEMA's lack of money "would have been an issue," Thomas said.

The alarm bell rang loudly last month when the National Emergency Management Association, which represents state disaster chiefs, sent a formal plea to Congress for $1.6-billion for the FEMA fund.

"The Disaster Relief Fund is at a dangerously low level and supplemental assistance is needed to respond to thousands of applications for assistance from many open disasters that occurred this spring, in addition to any future disasters that may occur" before the federal fiscal year ends Sept. 30, the letter said.

FEMA's Kolton said past experience showed that federal money flowed quickly when disasters occurred, even if it took an emergency act by Congress.

Meanwhile, FEMA's money crunch is so acute that the government has stopped sending long-term aid to local governments that are afflicted by disaster. Currently, FEMA limits aid to victims and to help with immediate public-health problems, Kolton said.

What's missing from that approach is evident in Oklahoma, which sustained record tornado damage in May. FEMA has sent more than $9-million in help to victims, but none to fix roads and bridges. Leaving that work undone endangers lives, said Albert Ashwood, Oklahoma's emergency management director.

And since Ohio had a disastrous ice storm in February, FEMA hasn't sent the $11-million it promised to reimburse local governments for 293 repair projects, U.S. Rep. Ted Strickland, D-Ohio, said.