Politics & Government

Harvey, Irma could cost billions in federal aid, but GOP could balk

A truck drives through a flooded street in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, Monday in Key Largo, Fla.
A truck drives through a flooded street in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, Monday in Key Largo, Fla. AP

Repairing the damage from Hurricanes Irma and Harvey could cost hundreds of billions of dollars at a time when Republicans in Congress are reluctant to spend much on anything, particularly without a way to pay for it.

It could make passing disaster relief funding in the future a politically toxic exercise, even in the era of unified GOP government.

As authorities assess the damage in Harvey-ravaged Texas and Louisiana, and Irma continues to batter the southeast cost from Florida on up, it’s hard to tell how much money Congress will ultimately be asked to greenlight.

Joel Myers, president of AccuWeather, predicted on Monday the cost of Irma and Harvey combined could reach a total of $290 billion. However, that includes costs for which the federal government is not responsible, such as lost personal valuables or destruction of homes that ought to be protected by insurance.

Insured losses in the U.S. from Irma could total between $20 billion and $40 billion, according to an estimate by insurance risk modeling firm AIR Worldwide.

There’s no precedent for how much government aid could be needed. Two Category 4 storms have never hit the United States in the same year. And the storms hit some of the nation’s most densely populated areas.

The White House Monday also could not say how much it might need to address stricken areas.

“We’re trying to make sure we have responsible estimates as opposed to making wild guesses now,” Thomas Bossert, President Donald Trump’s homeland security and terrorism adviser, told reporters..

Lawmakers last week sent legislation to the president’s desk providing more than $15 billion in storm relief funds, which the Federal Emergency Management Agency said should be sufficient to provide disaster relief for at least a few months.

The measure may postpone the next debate over how much Congress should spend, but it doesn’t remove the possibility of a bitter political battle, with the administration expected to ask for as many as four emergency funding requests.

Congress could also be asked to raise the caps on how much money recipients of the National Flood Insurance Program can receive for damaged property, which could prompt additional disagreements over what the federal government’s role should be in “bailing out” taxpayers.

Members have dealt with disaster aid in recent years and it’s often been ugly.

After Hurricane Katrina devastated parts of Louisiana in 2005, Congress approved billions in aid that went largely to FEMA, which in the immediate aftermath was not equipped to handle much of the storm relief.

When Superstorm Sandy made landfall in New York and New Jersey in late 2012, President Barack Obama’s administration tried to apply learned lessons from the mistakes of the Katrina response. Officials put together a targeted list of items that needed repair or attention.

Many Republicans in Congress were furious with the White House’s $60 billion proposal, accusing Democrats of trying to include in the legislation projects extraneous to the devastation at hand. GOP leaders held off on bringing the relief bill to the floor until early 2013, angering New York and New Jersey Republicans, who accused colleagues of regional bias.

This time, the dramatic confluence of two major back-to-back storms, and the request from a Republican White House to a Republican Congress, has so far made it easier for the staunchest of fiscal conservatives to go along with the initial funding. Also, unlike New York and New Jersey, Republicans make up vast majorities in states hit by Harvey and Irma, including Florida, Louisiana, Texas, Georgia and North Carolina and South Carolina.

Even Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., who calls the rising federal budget deficit one of the greatest threats to national security, said he was willing to pass a disaster relief bill without corresponding offsets.

“There’s nothing wrong with saying, ‘We’re running out of money so we’ll fill up the coffers,’ and coming back to the appropriations process later” to find offsets, Sanford explained. “It doesn’t have to be perfectly timed.”

The House voted twice last week on disaster aid. The first time, it approved a $7.9 billion plan, and virtually all Republicans voted yes. A few days later, though, Trump and Democratic leaders agreed on the $15 billion package, which also included a three month extension of the debt ceiling and government funding, the measure eventually signed into law.

This time, 90 Republicans were opposed, including Sanford. But they could head home to their storm-struck areas and say they did vote for relief.

There’s no guarantee Republicans will help pass disaster funding again, on its own or as part of a package, offset or not.

Elsewhere, on Monday afternoon, Sanford’s coastal district was flooded by Irma’s rains, facing three-foot storm surges and tornado warnings.

William Douglas contributed to this report.

Contact: Emma Dumain at edumain@mcclatchydc.com