Laura, the strongest August hurricane observed in the Gulf of Mexico since Hurricane Katrina, is steamrolling toward Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas and expected to make landfall by Thursday morning. The National Hurricane Center has warned the storm could bring with it an “unsurvivable” surge — waves up to 20 feet high that may cause “catastrophic” damage up to 30 miles inland — along with hurricane-force winds, heavy rain and widespread flash flooding.
If those predictions bear out, Laura could be one of the most destructive Gulf hurricanes on record. It’s particularly bad timing considering that, less than three weeks ago, instead of working with Congress to craft comprehensive legislation to address the ongoing crisis and deliver desperately-needed aid, President Trump looted FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund to the tune of $44 billion — authorizing the agency to pay for a $300 per week supplement to regular unemployment benefits.
The $300 a week benefit supplement is similar to the $600 one that was included in the CARES Act passed at the start of the pandemic. An extension of that $600 benefit was included in second relief package that the House has already approved, but that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell won’t hold a vote on. And because the Senate won’t sign off on the House bill and Trump didn’t work with lawmakers to reach a compromise, the unemployment supplement isn’t coming from money appropriated by Congress. It’s coming from the government account meant to cover natural disasters like the one presently bearing down on Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas.
“I am extremely concerned about the health and safety of Americans when Hurricane Laura comes ashore,” Rep. Donald Payne, Jr. (D-NJ), head of the subcommittee on emergency preparedness, response, and recovery, said in a statement. “The fact that President Trump would take up to $44 billion from FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund right before a possibly record-setting hurricane season shows his inability to protect our country during a crisis. If he had convinced his Senate allies to pass our Heroes Act, we would have extended unemployment benefits and still had plenty of money for FEMA and states to use to help Americans recover from a natural disaster, like Hurricane Laura.”
While nearly unprecedented, a hurricane of Laura’s magnitude is not entirely unexpected. For months, experts have been warning that wind patterns and warming seas were conspiring to create a historically devastating Atlantic hurricane season, both in terms of the number of storms and in their intensity. It was with those warnings in mind that, back in April — in the midst of the pandemic, the first time in American history every state had a major disaster declaration simultaneously — House Democrats wrote to FEMA administrator Peter Gaynor to express concerns about the agency’s own preparedness. Their questions went unanswered.
Four months later, things have only gotten worse: the virus has infected millions of Americans, the entire state of California is engulfed in flames, Iowa has been devastated by a rare inland hurricane, and now Laura is on the way, on top of it all. “There is a reason the Constitution gave Congress the sole power to authorize government expenditures,” Payne continued. “It was to prevent reckless Presidents from taking money from one program to fund another one.”