WASHINGTON — Political winds are again swirling around FEMA as the organization races to get ready for Hurricane Florence and what’s expected to be a major recovery effort after it makes landfall.
FEMA Administrator Brock Long and the Department of Homeland Security on Wednesday rejected a Democratic senator’s claim that nearly $10 million was diverted from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) charged that the Trump administration was taking money away from FEMA at a critical time — as Florence barreled toward the East Coast — so that more money could go toward immigration enforcement. Other Democrats joined in the criticism, including Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Virginia), who serves on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
“It’s shameful but not surprising that the President would rob FEMA to pay for his callous policy of ripping families apart,” Connolly said in a statement, which also criticized the response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico last year. Connolly accused the president of “putting lives at risk in the middle of hurricane season.”
Long said the money transfer cited by Merkley had nothing to do with current efforts to prepare for Florence and doesn’t come from his agency’s disaster relief fund. In an interview with Andrea Mitchell on MSNBC he accused Merkley of “playing politics.”
Merkley made the allegation about the money movement Tuesday night on MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show.” He cited a document outlining $9.8 million in fund transfers in August involving the Department of Homeland Security.
A spokesman for DHS denied any disaster relief funding was transferred to immigration enforcement.
Under no circumstances was any disaster relief funding transferred from @fema to immigration enforcement efforts. This is a sorry attempt to push a false agenda at a time when the administration is focused on assisting millions on the East Coast facing a catastrophic disaster.
— Tyler Q. Houlton (@SpoxDHS) September 12, 2018
Merkley, however, didn’t back down from his assertion on Wednesday. He tweeted that money was taken from FEMA and called it a “scandal.”
While the political storm played out, FEMA moved ahead with widespread efforts to get states ready for the hurricane.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) visited FEMA headquarters on Wednesday and received a briefing at the National Response Coordination Center on federal efforts to prepare for Florence. While the projected path of the hurricane lessens its potential impact across the commonwealth, Kaine said people shouldn’t get complacent.
“We talked about the path of the storm and the news is that it still poses significant danger in Virginia,” Kaine said in a statement.
Kaine visited Puerto Rico last year after Hurricane Maria. He said there were “serious, serious problems” with the emergency response on the island, where nearly 3,000 people died. But he remains hopeful FEMA will be up to the task with Florence.
“Look, FEMA has shown the ability when they’re led correctly to do a very good job in emergency response,” Kaine said. “We would expect nothing less than a very strong effort by FEMA in Virginia.”
President Trump has defended FEMA’s performance in Puerto Rico, as well as in Texas and Florida, last year. During a White House briefing on Florence this week, the president said the effort in Puerto Rico was “an incredible unsung success.”
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