* Obama quickly declared some states major disasters
* FEMA's job is to coordinate federal help to states
* FEMA has enough cash to respond to Sandy, Fugate says
By Susan Cornwell and David Lawder
WASHINGTON, Oct 30 The U.S. federal agency in
charge of disaster relief, under intense pressure to show the
Obama administration can quickly respond to the devastation
caused by the massive storm Sandy, said it has plenty of cash to
deliver timely aid to the millions of people struggling to
The head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency also
noted on Tuesday that President Barack Obama fast-tracked funds
to areas hardest hit as the agency seeks to prove it can
smoothly work with the states to give basic relief, just a week
before Election Day.
FEMA director Craig Fugate said on a media call on Tuesday
that it was a rare move for Obama to declare New York and New
Jersey areas of "major disaster" even as the catastrophe was
That gives those states direct federal financial assistance
to individuals, such as owners of homes and businesses, who can
apply to FEMA for aid. Obama made another such declaration for
Connecticut Tuesday evening.
"This is extraordinary in that generally we do more thorough
assessments and it often times will take longer," Fugate told
Millions of people were left reeling after Sandy crashed
ashore on Monday evening in New Jersey. The biggest storm to hit
the country in generations left a wide swath of the eastern
United States struggling with epic flooding and extensive power
outages, and the death toll climbed to at least 45.
The president has also authorized "emergency declarations"
for a handful of other states stretching from West Virginia to
Massachusetts, and the District of Colombia. These declarations
authorize FEMA to coordinate disaster relief efforts and provide
a baseline of $5 million in federal help; the states can
negotiate for more.
FEMA has a little more than $7 billion that it could quickly
access to provide relief to those impacted, and could get ahold
of another $11 billion with congressional action.
Fugate, a former paramedic and firefighter who was
previously Florida's top emergency management official, said
that FEMA has the necessary funds to respond to Sandy.
Fugate gave no indication on Tuesday about how long the
cleanup of Sandy damage would take. FEMA is still working on
projects from last year's Hurricane Irene, and Sandy appears to
have caused billions of dollars in damages -- twice or even
three times the losses of Irene, according to catastrophe
FEMA says its roots trace back more than 200 years to the
Congressional Act of 1803, considered the first disaster relief
law, which gave aid to a New Hampshire town ravaged by a fire.
The agency is generally seen as a coordinating body that
provides assistance to first responders, and as a main
clearinghouse that gives state and local authorities the money
needed to provide for their citizens' basic needs and also
rebuild their communities.
Seven years ago, FEMA became a prime political target after
the agency and former President George W. Bush were widely
maligned for their slow-footed response to Hurricane Katrina.
This time around, even before Sandy had made landfall,
former House Speaker Newt Gingrich took a shot at Obama's
reaction. He noted on ABC's "This Week" that the president was
cancelling campaign events because of Sandy, but had not done so
after four Americans were killed in an attack on the U.S.
mission in Benghazi, Libya.
In the face of such criticism, Obama is taking a proactive
approach, announcing on Tuesday that he plans to visit New
Jersey on Wednesday with Republican Governor Chris Christie, a
frequent Obama critic who has heavily campaigned for Republican
challenger Mitt Romney.
FEMA is also going to great lengths to describe to the
public how it plans to help.
Currently more than 1,900 FEMA personnel are working to
support disaster response and recovery operations, FEMA said in
an extensive press release late Tuesday. These include search
and rescue, "situational awareness," communications and
logistical support, it said.
At all times FEMA also maintains basic commodities,
including millions of liters of water, millions of meals and
hundreds of thousands of blankets, the agency's statement said.
Many of these commodities have been moved to U.S. military bases
on the East Coast to help address Sandy, it said.
Unlike past major disasters, FEMA has considerable resources
available to it -- a total of nearly $19 billion.
Fugate has mentioned $3.6 billion in available funds for
Sandy. But the congressional aides said that represents only
about half of the $7.1 billion appropriated under a six-month,
stop-gap funding measure passed in September.
The Obama administration has the authority to bring forward
the full $7.1 billion immediately, and adding in money left over
from a light disaster year in fiscal 2012, this brings immediate
spending capacity to $7.8 billion, they said.