NEW YORK - Hurricane Irene is history, but the cleanup efforts and a new controversy over allocation of federal money remain.
Despite the severity of the storm and the destruction in its aftermath, the Republican Party has worked to impede relief efforts. Virginia U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor, the House Majority Leader, has left those wishing to see their homes, businesses and municipalities fixed especially frustrated: Despite a state of emergency having been declared in his home state, Cantor's spokesperson Laena Fallon has suggested that money for relief would only be released were equal cuts to be made elsewhere in the federal budget.
"Eric has consistently said that additional funds for federal disaster relief ought to be offset with spending cuts," she told the press.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said, according to the AP, "I guess I can't help but say that I wish that commitment to looking for offsets had been held by the House majority leader and others, say, during the previous administration when they ran up unprecedented bills and never paid for them."
Carney went on to say that clean up should be an immediate priority. Early on, President Obama sent the same message. "Our thoughts and prayers are with those who've lost loved ones and those whose lives have been affected by the storm," Obama said Aug. 28. "You need to know that America will be with you in your hour of need."
"We continue to have search and rescue personnel on alert, as well as water, food and other needed resources," the president continued. "And moving forward, FEMA is working with state and local responders to assess damage and assist in the recovery."
But it may be hard for FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to fulfill the president's words. According to a CNN report, the agency has fallen on hard times, with only $800 million on hand. To put that number in perspective, the federal government spends $964.8 billion on defense and $206.7 billion on interest payments each year.
When FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate was asked by CNN whether there was enough money on hand to clean up after Irene, he responded: "Don't know."
In addition to emergency clean up of the recent hurricane, FEMA should also deal with ongoing cleanup efforts from the rash of tornados earlier this year. However, according to CNN, unless more money is forthcoming, the agency will have to drop all non-emergency projects, including the rebuilding of schools and roads destroyed by storms.
The destruction of the storm, as it tore its way up the Atlantic coast, though less than some predicted, is quite real. It first made landfall in North Carolina and reached here at Coney Island in the early morning hours Aug. 28. When it hit New Jersey, it was the first full-fledged hurricane to do so in more than a century, since 1903.
Emergency crews were still responding today as far north as Vermont, where food was being airlifted to those trapped by floodwaters. In several states, including New York and New Jersey, the worst flooding in several decades was seen. Hundreds of people were trapped in their homes; more than 600 so far have been airlifted to safety.
7.4 million customers lost power across the eastern seaboard due to the storm, with 3.3 million still out as of today.
According to the most recent count, the storm killed at least 40 people in the U.S.
While there has been some grumbling about the scale of preparations for the storm, most people were generally happy with this city's efforts.
"I'm glad I live in New York," said Lin Xiang, a resident of Coney Island, an area that was evacuated. "They [Mayor Bloomberg and city officials] kept updating us, telling us what to do, and gave help to people who needed to escape from low [-lying] areas."
"Better than New Orleans," Lin said, referring to the botched evacuation efforts in that city after it was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina.
Asked whether he agreed with any of the anti-government talking points of the tea party movement, Lin said, "No. I love the government. Small government wouldn't be able to evacuate a whole area. Small government in New Orleans didn't do anything, and everyone in Louisiana dead or stuck in extradome [actually Superdome] hell."
Photo: Oregon Inlet, N.C. Coast Guard // CC 2.0