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FEMA Disaster Relief Fund Not Depleted By Tornadoes

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By Ian Simpson

WASHINGTON, March 5 (Reuters) - The rash of devastating tornadoes early in the season across the Midwest and South will not deplete the U.S. disaster fund which was replenished by Congress last year, officials said on Monday.

The Federal Emergency Management Administration's (FEMA) Disaster Relief Fund now has about $3.7 billion, a FEMA source said on Monday, after nearly being emptied last year with some $13 billion in spending.

Kentucky on Sunday was the first state hit by the tornadoes to ask President Barack Obama to tap the fund for help in rebuilding after storms that killed at least 39 people, 21 of them in Kentucky.

The Disaster Relief Fund has been heavily drawn down over the last decade as the number of disasters and emergencies has climbed, according to Trina Sheets, executive director of the National Emergency Management Association in Lexington, Kentucky.

Since 2001 the United States has been pummeled by monster hurricanes, devastating tornadoes, the attacks of Sept. 11, 2011, and record flooding year after year in the Midwest, she said.

"You're seeing 100-year floods become 50-year floods. And it's across the board in terms of what types of disasters you're seeing. What we're seeing is that the frequency and severity of those events is increasing," Sheets said.


CONGRESSIONAL FIGHTING

The Disaster Relief Fund spent almost $13 billion last year and at one point fell to $1 billion even before Hurricane Irene hit the eastern U.S. and FEMA predicted the fund could become insolvent.

The fighting over whether to offset extra money for FEMA with budget cuts elsewhere nearly led to a government shutdown in September. FEMA got more money on Oct. 1 and resumed paying for suspended projects.

Last year was a record for major disaster declarations, with 99. That number broke the record of 81 set in 2010, according to FEMA.

There were no emergency declarations last year but 29 in 2010. Emergency declarations allow the president to give states disaster aid for smaller incidents.

There have been six declarations of major disasters in 2012. The latest were in the last few days for flooding and landslides in Oregon and Washington state.

Mark Merritt, president of Witt Associates, a disaster consultancy in Washington, said federal aid to states hit by the tornadoes likely would be relatively small since most property damage would be covered by insurance.

Damage to infrastructure, such as roads or bridges, also would be light compared with that from a hurricane or earthquake, he said.

Even with relatively light damage, state leaders often feel compelled to ask for federal help, he said.

"The pressure to ask is always there because if you don't ask for it, you won't get it," Merritt said.


FOOD, WATER SHIPPED

FEMA said in a statement that it was in touch with officials in 11 states and had deployed damage-assessment teams in Illinois, Indiana, Tennessee and West Virginia. It also has sent liaison teams to state emergency offices in Indiana and Kentucky.

FEMA is shipping another 10,000 meals and more than 350,000 more liters of water to damaged areas, it said.

Under disaster guidelines, FEMA assesses the damage and estimates the total costs using a formula that includes the state's population and the amount of insurance coverage.

The president decides on a declaration when an incident is so bad that recovery is beyond the means of the state and local governments.

The Disaster Relief Fund is budgeted at $7.1 billion for the current fiscal year. It is set to drop to $6.1 billion under Obama's budget proposal for 2013.

Other disasters could be covered with emergency funding, according to FEMA's budget proposal. It also includes a $500 million reserve to keep it "from falling to the dangerously low level that it did during September," Richard Serino, FEMA's deputy administrator, said in congressional testimony. (Reporting By Ian Simpson; Editing by Greg McCune)

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