The latest financial face-off in Washington over a government function near and dear to Southwest Florida coastal hearts - disaster relief - could have an impact that extends far from the nation's shorelines to the heart of what most people expect government to do.
The immediate dilemma is too many disasters are affecting every corner of this country. It's faster to name the states that have not had a disaster declaration this year than the 42 so far this year that have endured snow, storms, floods and fires.
In all, 2011 has seen a record 84 major disaster declarations so far, with 10 surpassing the $1 billion mark in damages.
These calamities have been also disastrous for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is responsible for spearheading federal disaster response. FEMA's Disaster Relief Fund is drained to the point of triggering a shutdown of disaster response efforts. This would be troublesome enough in typical times, but now some in Congress are attempting to have emergency disaster relief funds tied to an appropriations stop-gap bill to fund the government through mid-November. This brinksmanship has snarled much-needed FEMA funding in a new round of political posturing.
Republicans and Democrats are arguing over the amount of disaster funding and whether such funding must be offset by cuts in spending elsewhere in the federal budget. This triggered anew the threat of a potential government shutdown should a compromise not be reached by the start of the new federal fiscal year Oct. 1.
Obscured in the rhetoric are a few salient facts:
Harry Simmons, president of the American Shore & Beach Preservation Association, can be reached by calling (910) 200-7867.
If FEMA funding falters, the agency's disaster response efforts will begin to shut down even as people struggle to recover from flooding, fires and other natural disasters. This will strand a lot of people with no other option left to help put their lives back together.
States and regions have been hit with a double disaster of their own: More crises with less money, more shortfalls with less ways to make them up. This hampers emergency response efforts in the best of times, and has made a bad situation worse for many in the wake of a serious natural disaster.
Often tied into this disaster relief funding is money to spend on an infrastructural response such as levee repair, beach restoration or better fire management. This undercuts a system that often mitigates disaster and thus lowers the federal funds needed to pay for its recovery. If these protections are not repaired in a timely fashion, the next disaster could be much worse (or it will take less of a catastrophe to create more of a problem), as those weakened levees, sand-starved beaches or tinder-dry forests lack the resilience to withstand another hit.
For coastal areas facing the prospect of a hurricane - the season isn't over yet - the potential loss of the FEMA cushion is a sobering thought. The lack of Corps funding to rebuild any protective infrastructure is a frightening specter. Coastal communities could be on their own if federal funding fades and state spending remains sparse.
However, the scope of disaster funding this year makes it clear this is far from a coastal problem. It's a national one that demands a national solution. If Congress is not up to that challenge it will only compound the catastrophe of a natural calamity on the lives of America's citizens.