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As FEMA Heads To Oklahoma, Agency Worries About Finances


President Obama said today that the people of Moore, Oklahoma, should know that their country will be there for them as long as it takes. The president issued a disaster declaration hours after the tornado struck, and he dispatched officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to Oklahoma. NPR's Brian Naylor has this story on what role FEMA can play.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: In the first hours after a natural disaster, like the tornado that ripped through Oklahoma yesterday, it's the local first responders who are the center of gravity of rescue efforts. The federal government's job is to help assure those responders have the training and equipment they need.

FEMA administrator Craig Fugate, who arrived in Oklahoma today, told reporters there FEMA's first job is to provide backup.

CRAIG FUGATE: The primary response to this disaster is being led by the governor, the local officials and the first responders. Our job is to support. And it's unfortunate that we are once again seeing what tornadoes can do. But you're also seeing what the investment in public safety and the commitment that training and exercise does when disaster does strike.

NAYLOR: FEMA did dispatch some of its specialized responders, including an urban search and rescue team, and a team that provides temporary telecommunications facilities with generators. It's also starting to assess the damage to see what type of help will be needed down the road. Fugate says by issuing a disaster declaration last night, the wheels of assistance are already in motion.

FUGATE: This was pretty quick turnaround, but it's because of the devastation and the evidence of how bad it was that the president concurred and issued that last night. So it's important that people start registering. We know a lot of people are staying with friends and family. Some of them are probably even staying in their cars right now. We can provide some assistance, rental assistance. We want to get people a place to stay, and so the first step is to register so we can start that assistance.

NAYLOR: By registering with FEMA, people who lost their houses can receive immediate aid, including money for a hotel and other necessities. James Kendra is director of the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware. Kendra says FEMA also provides help for other community services.

JAMES KENDRA: There are a couple of programs that FEMA manages that are involved more with respect to disaster recovery. And that's public assistance for damaged nonprofit facilities, like certain kinds of hospitals, and then the individual assistance program, which is directed toward individuals for home repair or temporary lodging or clothing and so forth.

NAYLOR: FEMA says it has $11.6 billion in its disaster relief fund for emergency assistance, which it says is sufficient for the immediate response and recovery from the tornado. But FEMA has not gone untouched by the across-the-board budget cuts under the sequester. A FEMA official says the disaster fund was cut by a billion dollars, and the agency currently has 500 open positions.

The possibility that additional funds might be needed puts Oklahoma senators in an awkward spot. They both voted against the rebuilding funds for Hurricane Sandy. One, James Inhofe said the two situations were totally different because the Sandy aid package was loaded with pork, and that won't happen in Oklahoma. The other, Tom Coburn, says any additional federal aid for Oklahoma might have to be offset with cuts elsewhere in the budget.

Tomorrow, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano is scheduled to travel to Oklahoma. Her next stop will be Missouri to take part in the second annual day of remembrance of the Joplin tornado. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.