Energy & Environment

Hawaii fires thrust congressional approval of disaster funds into the spotlight 

The disastrous Hawaii wildfires are focusing a spotlight on whether Congress will approve additional disaster relief funding.

Lawmakers appear open to the possibility, but any path to approval is complicated by ongoing government funding battles.

The death toll in Hawaii is sitting at 111 and expected to rise, a rare tropical storm heading for California is expected to have “significant impacts” and wildfires continue to rage in the Northwest. The Atlantic hurricane season’s peak is around the corner and the government is still contending with damage from previous floods, wildfires and tornados. 

But funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has to make it through the House, where the slim GOP majority has been feuding for months over federal funding and spending cuts.

And resistance in the GOP to funding for Ukraine could make approving any FEMA aid tricker if the two issues remain linked.

The White House last week issued a request for what it described as “three sets of critical needs for emergency funding” as part of a possible stopgap funding package to avoid a government shutdown after Sept. 30.

He asked specifically for $24 billion to help Ukraine in its war with Russia and $4 billion for border security measures and to prevent fentanyl from coming across the border, in addition to $12 billion for FEMA’s disaster relief fund.

That fund provides money to respond to disasters across the country — floods, hurricanes, wildfires, and beyond.

FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell said in a White House press briefing on Wednesday that the agency may need more funding beyond the initial $12 billion supplemental request as it re-assess needs, but said that the agency has enough funding to support ongoing response efforts.

“If we don’t have additional funding, it would delay some of the recovery projects and push them into next year,” Criswell said.

Asked about the potential supplemental funding on Friday, Matthew Payne, FEMA’s acting deputy assistant administrator of the response directorate, said the agency has enough funding to carry out its immediate rescue operations. 

“At this time we have sufficient resources to meet the immediate lifesaving, life-sustaining operations both in the Hawaii response and in the anticipated support that we’ll provide to California and elsewhere across the country that have weather threats,” Payne told reporters. 

As of the end of July — before the wildfires broke out — FEMA estimated that it would reach a shortfall in the disaster relief fund in September. Prior reports had estimated a shortfall as soon as mid-August, Criswell previously told Congress.

“We have to make sure FEMA has the tools and the resources to be able to execute support back home at Hawaii. But, quite frankly, this is going to be happening across the country. And they need the money to be able to respond to wherever disaster strikes,” Rep. Jill Tokuda (D-Hawaii), who represents the areas incinerated by the wildfires, said on CBS’s Face the Nation.

In response to Biden’s request, Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), the leaders of the Senate Appropriations Committee, released a joint statement saying that these are “important priorities” and that they would consult with senators “on both sides of the aisle, on and off committee, to craft a bill that will pass the Senate” — indicating that a supplemental funding bill could have funds to replenish the country’s disaster relief funds.

In the House, approving any kind of supplemental funding request could be a heavier lift for Republicans, who have been battling for weeks over how much to cut spending in their appropriations bills.

On a House GOP conference call on Monday, additional disaster relief funds for FEMA and any disaster aid for Hawaii did not come up, according to a source familiar with the call.

And to some lawmakers, the Ukraine aspect of the White House’s supplemental is a nonstarter. 

Twelve House GOP members wrote a letter to Biden expressing their “strong opposition” to the Ukraine funding request. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) specifically mentioned Hawaii in the context of opposing funding for Ukraine.

“FEMA is underfunded by $4 BILLION, Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA) is only funded $1 per Georgian, Hawaii’s Lahaina is in desperate need of help from devastating fire killing 50+ people, and America is broke,” Greene wrote on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. “Biden wants to send another $24 BILLION to Ukraine. NO!!”

One GOP lawmaker signaled there could be a possibility of boosting aid to FEMA if it is decoupled from the rest of the request, even as part of a continuing resolution to fund the government at current levels – a measure both House and Senate leaders are eyeing to pass before the end of the fiscal year at the end of September.

“If you wanted to put in the CR an attachment just for FEMA money, that might be rational because we’re dealing with the United States, but Ukraine money would not belong on a CR in my opinion. That’s a separate vote,” Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-Va.) told reporters on Tuesday.

But a number of conservative Republicans have expressed opposition to any continuing resolution that funds the government at current levels.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said Friday that it “certainly isn’t my preference” to separate the FEMA funding from Ukraine aid, even if it would give FEMA funding a better chance of getting through.

“We need to do both,” Kaine said. “I think all three of the things the President asked for are justified.”

Kaine predicted that Congress would find a way to pass a supplemental package in the fall.

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) expressed support for the supplemental request in a call with reporters, invoking the situation in Hawaii. 

“I’ve spoken to [Hawaii] Senators Schatz and Hirono about the fires, I committed to them to have the Senate do everything we could to help Hawaii, and the Biden administration has requested…additional disaster relief funding in the supplemental,” Schumer said.

Al Weaver and Mychael Schnell contributed.

Tags Deanne Criswell Jill Tokuda