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Mitt Romney voices stronger support for FEMA

Mitt Romney held a rally in Tampa, Fla., on Wednesday.

Emmanuel DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images

Mitt Romney held a rally in Tampa, Fla., on Wednesday.

Mitt Romney on Wednesday stepped up his support of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, further rebuffing accusations that he would end funding for disaster relief if elected president.

“I believe that FEMA plays a key role in working with states and localities to prepare for and respond to natural disasters,” Romney said in a statement. “As president, I will ensure FEMA has the funding it needs to fulfill its mission, while directing maximum resources to the first responders who work tirelessly to help those in need, because states and localities are in the best position to get aid to the individuals and communities affected by natural disasters.”

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Romney’s comments last year during a GOP debate in New Hampshire were interpreted by some as a call to eliminate FEMA altogether.

“Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that’s the right direction,” Romney said. “And if you can go even further, and send it back to the private sector, that’s even better.”

The topic has taken on greater political implications as the federal government mobilizes to provide relief for communities devastated by Hurricane Sandy this week.

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On Monday, Romney’s campaign said he has no plan to shut down FEMA but continued to emphasize state responsibility.

“Governor Romney believes that states should be in charge of emergency management in responding to storms and other natural disasters in their jurisdictions,” said Amanda Henneberg, a Romney campaign spokeswoman. “As the first responders, states are in the best position to aid affected individuals and communities and to direct resources and assistance to where they are needed most. This includes help from the federal government and FEMA.”

George Haddow, a private disaster relief consultant and former deputy chief of staff at FEMA during the 1990s, said Romney’s vision for FEMA sounds like that of former President George W. Bush, who was criticized for the government’s slow response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“The problem is it doesn’t reflect the reality of major disasters,” Haddow said.

“You need FEMA, and you need a large FEMA,” added Thomas DeGregori, a professor of economics at the University of Houston and an expert on disaster relief. “FEMA can do things that no state or local government can do, and often has experience and expertise that they don’t have.”

FEMA became a major point of contention last fall, when Republicans and Democrats narrowly avoided a government shutdown. The agency appeared to be on the verge of running out of money, and Republicans demanded cuts to other programs to compensate for any injection of funds to FEMA -- a principle included in the 2012 budget proposal by Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, Romney’s running mate.

Ryan’s long-term budget plan calls for reductions in federal discretionary spending that could include cuts to FEMA.

In an interview with CBS News during the FEMA standoff last year, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor likened the government’s situation to that of a family that, when struck by tragedy, would divert money it had saved for other purposes toward dealing with the unexpected problem.

“That’s what they would do because families don’t have unlimited money,” Cantor said. “And, really, neither does the federal government.”

Ultimately, the debate between Republicans and Democrats became moot when FEMA reported in late September 2011 that it had enough money to last one more week and would not require as much additional money as it originally estimated.

Callum Borchers can be reached at callum.borchers@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @callumborchers.
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