Will FEMA Foot the Bill for Hurricane Harvey First Responders?

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By Jacquie Lee

Police officers, firefighters, EMTs—even average citizens—have their hands full responding to the Hurricane Harvey crisis. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, New Orleans struggled to pay the salaries of emergency responders, and Houston may face a similar hurdle, an attorney and others told Bloomberg BNA.

“They’re going to have a very large fiscal burden,” Wendy Ellard, an attorney at Baker Donelson who specializes in disaster recovery, told Bloomberg BNA Aug. 29. The cost estimates of the damage range from $30 billion to $100 billion.

But thanks to the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, the Federal Emergency Management Agency may be able to help municipalities pay employees who work beyond their scheduled hours, a FEMA spokesperson confirmed for Bloomberg BNA in an email.

FEMA offers public assistance grants to municipalities hit with natural disasters. The funds can be used to clean up damage from the storm, implement emergency measures, or rebuild or restore public infrastructure, the spokesperson said.

The grants can also be used to reimburse municipalities for salary and benefit costs they incur “as a result of employees performing emergency protective measures and debris removal operations,” the FEMA spokesperson said.

The spokesperson couldn’t give specifics about how public assistance grants will affect Hurricane Harvey emergency personnel. But Ellard said FEMA typically covers about 75 percent of the work it approves as “eligible,” which usually includes overtime pay for emergency personnel and first responders.

Regular Personnel, Atypical Duties

FEMA will sometimes also pay the “regular time” salaries of certain personnel if the work they did during an emergency is outside of their typical duties, Ellard said.

For example, FEMA will probably not pay the regular salary for a police officer or firefighter who responds to emergency calls during Hurricane Harvey, but it could cover work done by someone in the police department’s administrative office who is helping officers pull people out of flooded homes.

“The idea is the city would have to pay for those calls regardless,” Ellard said of the police and firefighters responding to general emergency calls during Hurricane Harvey, “so the city should have to continue to pay for those calls.”

How Much Will Harvey Cost FEMA?

It’s difficult to gauge how much FEMA will provide Houston in public assistance grants because the agency has a large amount of discretion when it comes to determining what work is considered eligible for reimbursement, Ellard said.

Between 30 percent and 40 percent of Houston’s firefighters are working overtime because of Hurricane Harvey, said Ruy Lozano, the public information officer for the Houston Fire Department. Each of those workers gets paid time-and-a-half for hours they put in beyond those previously scheduled, Lozano said.

“But not all first responders are working overtime,” Lozano said. “Some are working normal hours.”

The Houston Fire Department employed about 4,000 people as of March 2016, its website says. Conservatively, if 30 percent of them are paid overtime, either FEMA or the city will need to provide time-and-a-half pay for some 1,200 firefighters. That doesn’t include other first responders, such as police officers or emergency medical service personnel.

Because of the storm, the Texas Department of Public Safety couldn’t provide details about funding for emergency responders’ salaries. The Houston mayor’s office didn’t reply to requests for comment.

Post-Katrina, FEMA Covered Almost $11M in Salaries

In 2013, FEMA paid the city of New Orleans almost $11 million, according to a copy of a decision by the U.S. Civilian Board of Contract Appeals.

The money was meant to reimburse New Orleans for roughly a third of the regular-time salary costs for the city’s police, fire, and emergency medical services first responders who worked during the first four months after Hurricane Katrina hit.

Because CBCA cases are fact-dependent, it’s impossible to say whether the conditions of Hurricane Harvey in Houston will match those in New Orleans and garner similar funds, Greg Parks, chief counsel for the board, told Bloomberg BNA.

FEMA paid 100 percent of eligible costs for Katrina, but that’s highly unusual, Ellard said.

Ellard anticipates FEMA will pay a higher proportion than the typical 75 percent.

“Based on info I’ve seen and current circumstances on the wide devastation in the state of Texas, I believe FEMA will increase it to 90 percent” she said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jacquie Lee at jlee1@bna.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at maulino@bna.com; Terence Hyland at thyland@bna.com; Chris Opfer at copfer@bna.com

Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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