ST. LOUIS — Some federal money pledged to tornado-ravaged Joplin and other disaster sites has been diverted to help victims of Hurricane Irene, drawing concerns from at least one Missouri lawmaker.
Federal Emergency Management Agency spokesman Bob Josephson said Monday that FEMA's Disaster Relief Fund is running low — down to between $800 million and $1 billion. When that happens, the agency focuses on the immediate needs of disaster survivors, communities and states — in this case, along the East Coast for places hit by Hurricane Irene.
Individual aid to victims of the May 22 tornado that killed 160 people and damaged about 7,500 homes in Joplin will continue for things such as temporary housing and debris removal. But help with long-term public repair and rebuilding projects has been on hold.
"Essentially what we're doing is suspending obligated funds for permanent rebuilding until the Disaster Relief Fund has been replenished," Josephson said.
Congress has responsibility for allocating money to the fund. Given the difficult budget situation this year, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said that's no sure thing, though she promised to push to get full funding restored not only for Joplin but for other parts of the country hit by disasters.
"I do, candidly, worry because folks in other parts of the country feel the world revolves around the corridor between Washington and New York City," McCaskill told The Associated Press. "What happened in southwest Missouri was huge devastation compared to what Irene did over the weekend."
The money being sent to the East Coast typically would have been used to rebuild roads and infrastructure. It also could have been used to repair or rebuild public buildings such as schools. That's an issue in Joplin, where the tornado destroyed the high school, two grade schools, two middle schools and a school technology center. High school students are temporarily meeting in a converted department store.
It wasn't immediately clear what projects in Joplin may be put on hold. Messages left with the city of Joplin and the school district weren't returned. Messages also were left with the offices of Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and U.S. Rep. Billy Long, a Republican whose district includes Joplin.
The FEMA decision also affects other disaster sites, including areas of the South damaged by spring tornadoes that killed more than 345 people and parts of Louisiana, Mississippi and Missouri flooded by the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. Sam Murphey, a spokesman for Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, said the state will meet its obligation to help disaster areas "and we have every reason to believe that our federal partners will continue to do the same."
But McCaskill noted it has been an expensive year for disasters. Five disasters this year have each caused more than $1 billion in damage, she said.
Still, McCaskill said she was confident the funding would be restored, especially since damage from Hurricane Irene could fall short of initial expectations. One private company estimated the damage at $7 billion — about one-fifth of the cost of Hurricane Katrina.
"I just want to make sure the commitments made to Joplin — we don't see a hiccup there," McCaskill said. "I'm confident Joplin will continue to get the funding it needs."