After months of sparring, Congress is closer than ever to passing a disaster relief bill intended to help devastated communities across the country. But the length of time it has taken lawmakers to reach a compromise underscores the sluggish pace of disaster aid, at a time when hurricanes, wildfires, and other crises are becoming more frequent and more deadly.
And the wait still isn’t over. After Rep. Chip Roy (R-TX) blocked a House procedural effort on Friday to fast-track the measure that was approved by the Senate Thursday, impacted communities must now wait until June for relief — all while flooding and tornadoes plague several parts of the country.
Since January, there have been at least three major disasters in the contiguous United States, including historic floods in the South and Midwest, and a tornado blitz this week through Missouri — all while lawmakers in Washington fought over a bill that includes funds for communities still recovering from hurricanes that hit almost two years ago and for California wildfire victims.
After months of debate, the Senate voted Thursday to approve a $19.1 billion aid package by an 85-8 margin. Despite ongoing resistance from President Donald Trump, the bill also includes at least $1 billion for Puerto Rico, where residents are still recovering from Hurricane Maria.
Even though he has stalled the package’s passage for months over relief for the island, Trump has voiced his support for the bill and has indicated he will sign it. The final package also notably leaves out any funding for a proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
“The U.S. Senate has just approved a 19 Billion Dollar Disaster Relief Bill, with my total approval. Great!” Trump tweeted Thursday night.
But any chance of Trump signing the bill before June evaporated swiftly on Friday. With most House members already gone for the Memorial Day recess, remaining lawmakers attempted a procedural move to unanimously pass the bill to send to the White House. Roy, a former staffer for Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) who has argued that the bill would increase the budget deficit and should include border security funds, voted to block the legislation, which would free up more than $4 billion for his home state.
“The people are tired of the swamp and this is a very swampy thing to do,” the Texas representative said.
Disaster aid has been a source of controversy all year. In January, House Democrats passed an initial aid bill containing around $14 billion, which failed in the Republican-controlled Senate amid push-back from Trump. Two weeks ago, the House passed a $19 billion package largely along party lines after Trump ordered Republicans not to back the bill; 34 ultimately defected. But as debate has bogged down the funding, disasters have mounted across the country.
Three people died this week when a series of tornadoes struck Missouri’s capital, Jefferson City, and other parts of the state late Wednesday night. Houses and businesses were also impacted, with debris scattered around the area and multiple buildings completely destroyed.
The “extensive damage” reported in the area came as the National Weather Service (NWS) said it was looking into more than 30 reported tornadoes in Missouri and elsewhere, including Oklahoma and Texas. That spate of severe weather follows intensive spring flooding across the Midwest, which devastated parts of the region, something accounted for in the new disaster aid package.
Missouri, Oklahoma, and neighboring states, meanwhile, are bracing for another round of flooding. Across Eastern Oklahoma, city officials cautioned late Thursday about the potential need for evacuations should flooding escalate. In an evening alert, the city of Tulsa “highly recommended” that residents living in 100-year floodplains along the Arkansas River closely follow local news and be prepared to evacuate.
Rising floodwaters have also plagued parts of Texas and Louisiana this month. East and Central Texas have experienced a deluge over the past two weeks, with at least one person dead in Austin. Impacted areas include the city of Houston, which has still not fully recovered from 2017’s Hurricane Harvey.
That slow rate of recovery has left areas more vulnerable to future disasters. Aid workers told ThinkProgress that Texas and Puerto Rico are still years away from true recovery, and for more recently affected areas like the Florida Panhandle and eastern North Carolina, that reality is even more stark. Florida officials in particular have repeatedly lobbied Trump and Congress for relief following Hurricane Michael, which effectively wiped one town off the map and left the wider region in disarray.
Climate scientists have emphasized that the rise in global temperatures is making disasters more common and destructive, particularly with regard to hurricanes and flooding. Tornadoes are more complicated and that science is less clear — however, they have become more prevalent in recent years according to at least one study. But the Trump administration has largely rejected climate science while escalating the mass rollback of Obama-era environmental protections.
Meanwhile, coastal and inland states alike are bracing themselves for the next round of disasters: Western wildfire season is on the horizon and the Atlantic hurricane season officially begins June 1.