How the U.S. funds disaster recovery and what it means for Harvey relief

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Volunteers carry the luggage of those evacuated by boat from the Hurricane Harvey floodwaters in Houston, Texas August 29, 2017. REUTERS/Rick Wilking - RTX3DWPB

Volunteers carry the luggage of those evacuated by boat from the Hurricane Harvey floodwaters in Houston, Texas on August 29, 2017. Photo by REUTERS/Rick Wilking

All disasters — wildfires, earthquakes, pandemics, terror attacks, and of course, hurricanes — cause upheaval and loss. But not all receive special emergency federal funding.

As Hurricane Harvey continues wreaking havoc on the Houston region, here is a quick look at what we know about government spending on natural disasters, an increasingly controversial topic.

  • Go-to disaster funding: The federal government funds most disaster recoveries through its Disaster Relief Fund (DRF), a program that agencies can use for disaster response throughout the year.
  • Bigger money: But some disasters are much larger — and require costlier recovery efforts — than the relief fund can handle. In those cases, Congress can consider a special, emergency spending bill called a “supplemental” spending bill.
  • Hurricanes have prompted most supplemental spending: Hurricanes have received the largest number of such spending bills. In the past 16 years, 11 hurricanes have triggered emergency funding bills.
  • Less frequent disasters: Other types of disasters have also gotten special spending bills from Washington in the past two decades. They include the 9/11 terror attacks, the 2001 Puget Sound earthquake, wildfires in 2004, floods in 2008 and the 2011 drought.
  • Fastest response by Congress: Less than two weeks after Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Louisiana in 2005, Congress passed two bills with $60 billion in emergency funding. The Congressional Research Service made a rare, relatively saucy comment about the speed, writing that it was “atypical” especially before “the scope of needs had been fully assessed.”
  • Largest response by Congress: Katrina recovery efforts ultimately netted an unprecedented eight different emergency funding bills, passed between 2005 and 2010.
  • Slowest response by Congress in recent years: Hurricane Sandy crashed its way up the East Coast during the last days of October and first two days of November in 2012. Congress did not pass an emergency funding bill until the end of January, 2013, enraging lawmakers in the northeast.

What can we expect for Harvey? Homeland Security Advisor Tom Bossert said at a Thursday news briefing at the White House that the administration was putting together a “responsible supplemental request” for Congress, one that was clean, “separate and distinct from the debt ceiling” debate, though he noted that it hinged on Congress submitting a “responsible budget.” He said they’d likely return later with a second, and possibly a third, supplemental request.

Early requests will focus on replenishing the disaster relief fund and other ancillary needs like road repair, Bossert said. The Associated Press reported Friday that Trump was preparing to file an initial request for $5.9 billion, as a “down payment to ensure recovery efforts over the next few weeks are adequately funded.”

Is there enough funding for that? “I’m not worried at all that we don’t have enough money for the operations underway, and the operations we foresee in the next month,” Bossert said.

WATCH: 360 video of a rescue from the floodwaters in Houston

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