In 2012, FEMA spent more than $7 billion on recovery. By comparison, it spent $2 billion on disaster preparedness for various events, including terrorism.
FEMA has drawn fire from Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., for its slowness in paying out those funds; it has billions in unspent preparedness money on hand.
The agency keeps money in reserve for ongoing projects, but a high bar to get FEMA funds may also be part of the reason for the delay. Most of FEMA’s awards are reimbursement grants. In other words, a community or a person pays money for a project and then applies for reimbursement.
In the case of Salisbury, Mass., for example, the application process took “hundreds of hours over three years,” said Jerry Klima, a retired corporate lawyer and town selectman.
Salisbury got a grant to protect a business district and a portion of U.S. Route 1 from flooding that can close the highway for days at a time. The grant means the town can repair a culvert beneath an old rail bed that will drain water away from the commercial area during storms.
Politics can also bog down FEMA’s grants. In New Jersey, for example, some beachfront property owners are resisting community efforts to shore up protective dunes that would blunt the impact of coastal storms such as Sandy. Their lack of support threatens some plans, despite promised money from FEMA.
In a now-famous case, a couple won a judgment against their town for building a protective dune that blocked their ocean view – and eventually protected their property from Sandy’s impact.
FEMA’s preparedness money “has been an issue of confusion over the years,” acknowledged Timothy W. Manning, deputy director for protection and national preparedness. The money is reserved for projects in process, like transit station reinforcements or infrastructure improvements to ports, he said. FEMA has moved to speed its grant process, and now has $4.5 billion on hand, versus $9 billion a year ago.