The FEMA amounts are relatively small – $3.6 billion, or about .04 percent of the federal budget. But the fact that they threaten to hold up passage of the $1 trillion spending bill to keep the government fully funded until Nov. 18 has given them outsize importance.
The debate over FEMA funding "really represents the continued dismantling of the welfare state, where government is placing much more responsibility on people to take care of their basic needs – and it's problematic," says James Fraser, who studies disaster mitigation at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. "In many ways, the debate in Congress now is a red herring, a distraction from what's really at stake, which is the lives of many people. The debate seems a little bit misplaced."
In some of those disaster-stricken locales, promised relief funds are already on indefinite hold. Nashville's promise of flood-plain buyouts – to the tune of some $30 million – is tied up because FEMA can't pay what it promised.
And coastal towns in North Carolina, combating record swarms of mosquitos released after the drenching of hurricane Irene last month, have curtailed spraying efforts because they simply don't trust that they'll get their money back.
The North Carolina mosquito spraying fund that is normally replenished with FEMA funds is down to $160,000, which isn't enough to cover the amount needed in Dare County, N.C., alone, officials say.
Along the North Carolina coast, mosquito traps that usually catch 50 mosquitoes a night have caught 14,000 on some nights – an unprecedented amount, according to state mosquito experts. In some places, the swarms have made working outdoors to salvage property and rebuild homes difficult and, potentially, unsafe because of disease concerns.
"It's difficult for me to understand how FEMA recovery money becomes ideological," says Bobby Outten, the county manager in Dare County, which has stopped aerial spraying for mosquitoes because FEMA has been unable to guarantee the county will be reimbursed. "[Congress] needs to get aid out here as quickly as they can because people are suffering while they fight."