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McCaskill, Blunt upset that FEMA moving money from Joplin to East Coast

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 29, 2011 - U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said today that she is feeling better about the Federal Emergency Management Agency's plans for assisting Joplin, Mo., after agency officials have assured her and others that they are simply planning to delay some aid to Joplin, Mo. -- where a deadly tornado struck May 22 -- to pay for damage caused by Hurricane/Tropical Storm Irene, which struck the East Coast over the weekend.

"The only proposed shift was in order to meet immediate financial needs," the senator said during a news conference at her St. Louis office.

McCaskill said that some of FEMA's earlier plans -- which she suspects called for more serious shifts in aid -- apparently have been dropped because the devastation from Irene is not as bad as initially predicted.

McCaskill said part of the problem was that FEMA didn't alert her and other Missouri officials late last week to what the agency was considering, as it awaited Irene's wrath. McCaskill said she found out on Twitter late Friday, when a Washington reporter tweeted what he had been told by FEMA.

"I feel better today than I did over the weekend," she added -- while emphasizing that she stood by many of her Sunday comments, sent out in an evening release.

That statement said, in part:

"Days ago I walked the streets of Joplin. I saw construction projects where rubble had been, I saw parks where trees had toppled, and I saw a community trying to heal and rebuild," the senator said in a statement.

But she also noticed a warning sign: "I didn't see any camera trucks" -- unlike the media frenzy surrounding Irene, which drove up most of the East Coast, hitting a number of major cities, including New York and Washington D.C.

"I warned FEMA and assured victims in Joplin that they would not be forgotten after the camera trucks lowered their antennas and rolled out of town," McCaskill wrote. "I will fight to make sure that promise is kept."

She added, "FEMA should be prepared for all types of disasters and have the resources to respond rapidly and stay until the work is done, and until the community is made whole again."

FEMA officials said Sunday that the decision will not affect money directed at individual survivors in Joplin, but that some broader relief efforts may be put on hold because there isn't enough disaster aid available. The problem, said McCaskill, is that the federal fiscal year ends Sept. 30 and FEMA has limited resources left for disaster assistance.

"We have had five natural disasters this year that all cost over $1 billion," McCaskill said. "That's real money, and you just don't find that laying around. You have to make major cuts somewhere in order to find that kind of money."

FEMA's decision to put some Joplin aid on hold is particularly noteworthy since many Missouri members of Congress from both parties -- including Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. -- have been lobbying for the federal government to cover 90 percent or more of Joplin's reconstruction costs. That call has come as some Republican congressional leaders (notably Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va.), has declared they want any help for Joplin to come by cutting other federal spending.

Any unexpected cuts in federal aid for Joplin will put more pressure on Missouri's tight budget, and add more fuel for the debate over how to come up with the state's share of Joplin's assistance costs.

Earlier today, Blunt also issued a statement in which he made clear his differences with FEMA:

"My staff and I are regularly communicating with Joplin officials to make sure that they're getting the immediate help they need," Blunt wrote.

"The federal government has committed resources to help Missouri communities recover from crippling flood and tornado damage, and I expect that commitment to be fulfilled expeditiously. Recovery from hurricane damage on the East Coast must not come at the expense of Missouri's rebuilding efforts.  If FEMA can't fulfill its promise to our state because we have other disasters, that's unacceptable, and we need to take a serious look at how our disaster response policies are funded and implemented."

Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, took somewhat of a conciliatory approach when asked today about FEMA's action. "Bottom line, we've got the resources to continue to move forward the way we need to," Nixon said, during a news conference in north St. Louis County. "The federal government has done this on other expenses at various times. We feel confident that the progress
we're making is not going to be slowed down."

"It gets very technical very quickly in what they've done," Nixon added. "But basically what they've done is allowed one type of assistance without further approval. We are moving already in the line. The bottom line is we've got the debris almost completely moved out of there. We're now in the demolition phase down there, which are two of the more expensive first steps. And now as we move forward, the housing piece comes forward and we'll have these resources. Plus we've already had approved individual assistance that's providing employment to now almost 800 people in that region to rebuild Joplin."

McCaskill said today that during her latest visit to Joplin, she was struck by the pleas from local victims, businesses and officials for more federal help via various federal programs -- including unemployment aid, community development block grants and Commerce Department aid.

"There's this weird disconnect," the senator said, as Joplin residents have become more aware of the need for federal help, particularly in the case of natural disasters.

During her pre-tornado visits, McCaskill said, she'd hear calls to "dismantle the federal government."

(Jason Rosenbaum, a freelance writer for the Beacon, contributed some information for this article.)

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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