A top FEMA official attempted Wednesday to warn people in the path of Hurricane Florence but instead had to shoot down reporters’ questions about whether the Trump administration wasted disaster funds on its illegal immigration agenda.
Jeff Byard, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s associate administrator for response and recovery, said the important issue was that the hurricane would a “Mike Tyson punch to the Carolina coast” and people had to heed evacuation orders.
But reporters at a press conference at FEMA’s Washington headquarters wanted to know about Sen. Jeff Merkley’s claim that the Trump administration diverted $10 million from FEMA to ICE for housing illegal immigrants caught up in the President Trump’s zero tolerance policy at the border.
The Oregon Democrat showed budget documents about the fund transfer Tuesday on the “Rachel Maddow Show.”
Administration officials say Mr. Merkley and MSNBC got it all wrong.
The $10 million transfer came not from disaster accounts but from a pot of money at headquarters, covering employee training, travel, purchase card expenses and the like. Homeland Security officials say the headquarters money is funded by a separate account altogether, and legally could not be spent for disaster relief.
The cash also was set to expire at the end of this month, officials said.
Money was taken from accounts across-the-board, including tens of millions from the border wall project, to replenish ICE accounts.
Mr. Merkley’s office, though, cited a Washington Post report quoting a former disaster official who insisted the FEMA headquarters money did assist in disaster relief planning and preparation.
The shifted funds weren’t a surprise. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen had mentioned them over the summer in a meeting with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, saying she was making across-the-board trims to find more money for ICE to detain and transfer illegal immigrants, including families, streaming to the U.S.
Homeland Security says billions of dollars are still in FEMA’s disaster relief account, ready for disbursing.
“What I can say is we have plenty of resources — both monetary, staff and commodities to respond to the dangerous storm that is Hurricane Florence,” said Mr. Byard. “We again ask those residence that are in the impacted zone to heed the warnings now.”
He said the issue at hand was the storm, now a massive Category 4 hurricane barreling toward the Carolina coast.
“Right now we want to focus on what are the impacts of Florence and what can our citizens do today, which is the last good day to evacuate. And we really want to push that message,” he said.
Reporters wanted to know whether FEMA had enough funds.
“What I can tell you is we have plenty of resources to respond and plenty of resources to recover and that has not impacted our situations whatsoever,” said Mr. Byard.