The Politics of Presidential Disaster Declarations

Following a disaster, communities, tribes, and states typically experience years of rebuilding and recovery work. Understanding the presidential disaster declaration process and how to access supplemental disaster relief funds helps to speed the recovery efforts and potentially build back even better than before the incident.

The Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (P.L. 93-288) has delineated the presidential disaster declaration process for over 20 years. There are two paths to authorize federal supplemental assistance: emergency declarations and major disaster declarations. Although they may sound similar, these two types of declarations have key differences.

Emergency declarations are made to protect property, as well as public health and safety, in order to lessen the threat of a major disaster or catastrophe. This type of declaration is often made when a threat is recognized to supplement or coordinate with local and state efforts prior to an event – for example, launching evacuations and protecting public assets. A recent example is when the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) announced that, beginning on 13 August 2015, federal emergency aid was being made available to the State of Washington to supplement state, tribal, and local response efforts in the areas surrounding wildland fires. Although this article is primarily focused on major disaster declarations made after disasters have done their damage, these smaller, less frequent emergency declarations are an important aspect of emergency and disaster management.

On the other hand, as mentioned, a major disaster declaration is made after a natural or human-caused hazard results in a disaster or catastrophic incident and includes broader authorities to help states, tribes, territories, and local communities, as well as families and individuals, recover from the damage caused by the event.

Paying the High Costs of Disasters

Federal disaster assistance funding is contained in many supplemental appropriations bills, including those covering presidential declarations in each state and territory. These supplemental funds are placed in the Disaster Relief Fund (DRF), which is a “no-year” fund managed by FEMA that can be used only for spending related to presidentially declared disasters. A separate disaster relief account is established for each declared disaster to fund public assistance (for rebuilding public institutions and infrastructure) and individual assistance (for individual victims).

Major disasters are often the dominant story in the mass media and social media, capturing attention both for the resulting devastation as well as for presidential and agency actions. Such stories help the public to assess the effectiveness of presidential leadership, constituent care, and emergency management knowledge, as well as that of governors, county executives, mayors, emergency managers, and other emergency services professionals during these events.

As such, disaster assistance is an almost perfect political currency. It serves humanitarian purposes, which only the most cynical could question. Funded out of supplemental appropriations, this type of assistance does not officially add to the budget deficit, making it easier to pass through Congress. It also promotes the local economy, with many communities coming back stronger and more unified than before the disaster or catastrophic event.

However, a disaster declaration is generally the result of a tragic incident that takes the lives of tens, hundreds, or occasionally thousands of people, and disrupts or devastates communities, states, or tribal lands. The economic and environmental impact of a disaster can be severe, both in the short and long term. The assistance offered from federal and private sources may not be commensurate with the damage suffered, but rather is designed to bring the area back to its status at the time of the disaster, not necessarily to bring it back better than it was. However, through hard work and excellent planning, some best practices and amazing examples exist, including:

  • Joplin, Missouri, opening their schools on the regular schedule for the 2011-2012 school year, only three months after an EF5 tornado caused widespread destruction of school facilities on 22 May 2011 (the end of the 2010-2011 school year);

  • Greenburg, Kansas, going “green” after an EF5 tornado leveled the rural town on 4 May 2007;

  • The New Orleans downtown revitalization in the decade since Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in August 2005 (the 10-year anniversary was a time of reflection that acknowledged the exemplary recovery progress, but revealed the work that still needs to be done);

  • The State of Mississippi very rapidly and comprehensively progressing its recovery process following Hurricane Katrina; and

  • The Virginia Tech Families, following the tragic shooting incident on 16 April 2007, forming the Koshka Foundation, which is now leading a national effort to make sure all campuses are safe.

Understanding the Funding Process & Getting Started

It is this formal presidential disaster declaration process that sets the federal recovery help in motion, supplementing the state, tribal, and local funding and, in many instances, private and nonprofit funding. For example, during Hurricane Katrina’s early recovery days, Wal-Mart, Lowe’s, Home Depot, and many other companies assisted with contributions of much-needed items and jobs for dislocated disaster victims, while other states and cities welcomed and assisted evacuees. For example, Arkansas established a “Katrina Care” process and temporary program. Texas eventually housed many Katrina evacuees who had been in the devastating situation at the New Orleans Super Dome.

The trigger for federal disaster assistance is contained in a relatively short statutory provision. P.L. 93-288 (the Stafford Act) includes one brief section that establishes the legal requirements for a major disaster declaration, which recently has been amended to include tribal requests.

This declaration process is delineated in the federal regulations, specifically in Subpart B of 44 C.F.R. 206. These regulations have been updated through the federal regulatory process, then put out for comment in the Federal Register and in final version, since 1974. However, little change occurred until the long overdue and recent inclusion of tribal groups in P.L. 113-2. These presidentially declared disasters occur on a frequent, even weekly basis and in almost every state, every year. 

The Stafford Act stipulates several procedural actions that a governor or tribal leader must take before requesting federal disaster assistance, such as having and implementing a state emergency plan and tribal emergency plan, as well as an agreement to accept cost-share provisions. However, broad discretion with tribal leaders or governors is needed if they determine that a situation is “beyond the capabilities of the state.” The concession that a state or tribe is unable to respond on its own may be difficult to quantify, with the governor or tribal leader making the final assessment, based on his or her knowledge of state or tribal resources and capabilities.

Although presidents who have served as governors may find this to be a smooth and natural path, others occasionally question the process or are frustrated at first by it, especially with the broad discretionary power of local, tribal, and state leaders. Presidents who have been governors have gone through this process numerous times and are thoroughly familiar with the declaration process. A president may be anxious to declare a disaster the second it occurs but is not allowed to under the Stafford Act, until the governor or the tribal leader certifies that an incident is beyond his or her state or tribe to cover the costs of recovery. On the other hand, a new governor or tribal leader may hesitate to admit that the state or the tribe cannot take care of the situation without any help from the federal government after a disaster. Some may not relish following the federal rules and regulations for the management of infrastructure projects or providing the state or tribal matching funding for cost share with the federal government.

For more information, Richard Sylves, Ph.D., emeritus professor of public administration at the University of Delaware, has tracked all presidential declared disasters from the beginning, and the Congressional Research Service publications have assisted congressional members and staff for many years in navigating the Stafford Act and the Presidential Declaration process.

Kay Goss
Kay C. Goss

Kay Goss has been the president of World Disaster Management since 2012. She is the former senior assistant to two state governors, coordinating fire service, emergency management, emergency medical services, public safety, and law enforcement for 12 years. She then served as the Associate Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Director for National Preparedness, Training, Higher Education, Exercises, and International Partnerships (presidential appointee, U.S. Senate confirmed unanimously). She was a private sector government contractor for 12 years at the Texas firm Electronic Data Systems as a senior emergency manager and homeland security advisor and SRA International’s director of emergency management services. She is a senior fellow at the National Academy for Public Administration and serves as a nonprofit leader on the Board of Advisors for DRONERESPONDERS International and for the Institute for Diversity and Inclusion in Emergency Management. She has also been a graduate professor of Emergency Management at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas for 16 years, İstanbul Technical University for 12 years, the MPA Programs Metropolitan College of New York for five years, and George Mason University. She has been a Certified Emergency Manager (CEM) for 25 years and a Featured International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) CEM Mentor for five years, and chair of the Training and Education Committee for six years, 2004-2010.



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