FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell on Sunday warned that the agency’s disaster relief fund could experience a shortage by mid-September.
This comes as Maui is still reeling from deadly wildfires that devastated the Hawaiian island and as southern California braces for what is expected to be its first tropical storm in 84 years.
“We do still anticipate that we will have a shortage of funding at our current spending levels by mid-September, and so what we will do is we will continue to push. We will push projects, recovery projects to the next fiscal year so we always have enough money to support any of the immediate lifesaving needs,” Criswell told CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday. “We will take measures to ensure there will always be enough funding to support immediate responses to these sorts of severe weather events. And the administration is working with Congress on what we can do to help facilitate the recovery projects for the rest of this year but also going into next fiscal year.”
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy suggested last week that Congress could pass a short-term extension of last year’s spending priorities to avoid a government shutdown this fall, allowing more time for lawmakers to reach a deal for fiscal 2024. Meanwhile, Criswell is expected to travel Monday with President Biden for what will be his first visit to Maui since the wildfires killed at least 114 people. Hawaii’s governor had said more than 1,000 people remain unaccounted for, suggesting the official death toll could still climb dramatically.
During her Sunday appearance on CNN, Criswell said FEMA is 78% complete with the search of the burned area, and FBI, Department of Defense and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) are on scene both helping to identify any remains and reunite family members. In previewing what Biden’s message would be during his Hawaii visit, Criswell insisted the federal government would support whatever the local vision would be for rebuilding the historic town of Lahaina.
“I think the biggest thing is he’s really going to be able to see the impact, right? Just feel this devastation in this community and how widespread it is across this community, and he’s going to be able to talk to families that have been impacted,” Criswell said. “I think what he’s going to be able to do is he’s going to be able to reassure the people of Maui that the federal government is there to support them. But we’re doing it in a way that’s going to allow them to rebuild the way they want to rebuild. And I think that’s the biggest message he’s going to be able to get across, right? Is that we are here for them, and we are going to help them with their vision for how they want to rebuild Lahaina.”
“The president has faced some criticism from Republicans because he spent about five days not talking about this as many of the devastating images and numbers were coming,” CNN anchor Kasie Hunt noted Sunday. “Do you think the Republicans’ criticism of the president’s willingness to talk about this in public or lack thereof is fair criticism?”
“The president directed me to go to Maui to assess the damage, meet with the governor, meet with the local officials, giving me the opportunity and the space to make sure that I can understand what’s going on, and then I report back to the president,” Criswell said in response. “I was in complete communication with him throughout this event helping him understand what I was seeing and what resources needed to come in. And he directed me to make sure we are doing everything we can to help the people of Maui and bring in all of the federal resources to help with this immediate response but also to begin to think about what this long-term recovery and rebuilding is going to look like.”
Criswell also addressed Hurricane Hilary, which was downgraded to a tropical storm as it barreled toward Baja California on Sunday.
Forecasters have warned the storm could result in “catastrophic and life-threatening” flooding across a broad region of the southwestern United States. The FEMA administrator, who said her agency is working in “close coordination” with California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s team, warned people to listen to local officials and take the storm seriously.
“California is a very capable state with a lot of resources,” she said. Criswell also advocated for increased investment in mitigation projects as severe weather events become more frequent. “We have to look at what the change in the climate is doing to these real weather events,” she said.