WASHINGTON — A senior FEMA official said the agency is well positioned to respond to Hurricane Florence, despite a report that nearly $10 million from the emergency management agency was transferred this summer to help boost U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
"We have plenty of resources to respond. We have plenty of resources to recover," Jeff Byard, FEMA's associate administrator for response and recovery, told reporters Wednesday morning. "That has not impacted our situation whatsoever."
Sen. Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat, shared documents detailing the transfer on MSNBC Tuesday night, as Hurricane Florence bore down on the North and South Carolina coasts.
Merkley told USA TODAY late Tuesday that the transfer was "incredibly irresponsible."
After the devastation of last year's storms – the triple wallop of Hurricanes Maria, Harvey and Irma – FEMA should have the funds it needs to be prepared for another disastrous hurricane season.
"It's almost guaranteed to happen again," said Merkley, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which oversees and approves federal spending.
The transfer to ICE is an especially sore point with Democrats, who have been battling the administration on the detention and forced separation of immigrant families crossing the border.
“This is yet another example of the Trump Administration’s outrageously misplaced homeland security priorities," said Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, D-Miss., the top Democrat on the House Committee on Homeland Security. "We have a president who cares more about locking up families seeking asylum and putting kids in cages than ensuring FEMA has every resource necessary to prepare for and respond to disasters."
The budgeting document, "Department of Homeland Security FY 2018 transfer and reprogramming notifications," indicates that $9,755,303 was taken from FEMA, about 0.9 percent of the agency's listed overall budget, and given to support ICE.
Money was also taken from other agencies, including millions from the Transportation Security Administration and the U.S. Coast Guard, to help ICE, the document shows.
FEMA, TSA, ICE and the Coast Guard are all agencies within the Department of Homeland Security.
In a tweet Tuesday night, DHS spokesman Tyler Q. Houlton said the money came from FEMA’s routine operating expenses, and "could not have been used for hurricane response due to appropriation limitations."
News of the budget transfer comes several weeks after FEMA acknowledged staffing shortages and logistical challenges in responding to Hurricane Maria last year in Puerto Rico, where aging infrastructure and island terrain complicated relief efforts. Nearly 3,000 people died in the storm and its aftermath.
But FEMA Administrator Brock Long also said the agency was facing an unprecedented workload that included the three catastrophic hurricanes, historic wildfires in California and dozens of other disasters. He said the agency has learned from last year and will be better prepared to confront disasters this year.
"It is always a question of when, not if, we will be called on again," Long wrote in a column last month for USA TODAY. "FEMA began incorporating lessons in real time as they were identified and continues to do so to prepare for the 2018 hurricane season. We have substantially increased stockpiles of resources across the nation, focusing on remote, hard-to-reach locations."