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What Is A (Federal) Disaster-Area Declaration?

Updated on September 2, 2017

Whenever a natural disaster (or a manmade one, in the case of 9/11) occurs, we often hear in the media that a sitting president has declared an affected area, a Federal Disaster Area. But what exactly does this mean…and how does such a designation affect an affected region? Well, the fact is that a presidential declaration of a “disaster area” sets a series of policies into motion that enable those who might be materially, economically, and personally affected to receive assistance in recovery. However, to understand what a disaster declaration is, one must be aware of the response policies of the various levels of government when a crisis occurs.

First, know that—strictly speaking—all disasters are local. This means that whenever there is a natural disaster anywhere in the U.S, first responders and local governmental agencies often act as an obligation of their official duties rather than being ordered into action as a result of legislated emergency protocols. In the overwhelming majority of instances, local-level officials’ responses to natural disasters are limited to search & rescue, maintaining order, and addressing existing hazards resulting from a given crisis (such as debris removal).

If called for, the governor (or tribal leader in the case of disasters that affect Native American-controlled areas) may declare a “state of emergency” and enact their state’s existing emergency operations plan. This might include activating elements of a state’s National Guard units to help with basic cleanup and maintain order, as well as enacting state-level executive orders that allocates [some of] a state’s resources to the recovery effort. But depending on the extent of a particular natural disaster, as well as how much recovery efforts can strain and overwhelm local resources, state government will often step in to allocate other resources to aid in the recovery. In these cases, state officials—who might be a specially-appointed liaison to local officials, a state’s Homeland Security officer, or a sitting governor—will tour affected disaster zones, and/or consult with local officials to get an understanding of the scope of a particular disaster.

During these high-profile tours, an assessment of damages will be made in order to determine whether the resources and needs of county and state resources will be adequate to cover the efforts of a full recovery. In many cases, officials from local and/or regional branches of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will join in the assessment of damages. Typically, these FEMA damage assessments will be performed on a county-wide level, and given to state officials—including the governor—in the determination of whether to ask for federal assistance (however, in the case of an obvious catastrophe; e.g., a mass casualty event, these may be completed after the request is submitted to the President). If damages and the resulting emergency responses are determined to be overwhelming to the capacity of state and local to respond, a governor will submit a formal request for federal assistance to the sitting President of the United States.

A snake-graph of the disaster declaration process.
A snake-graph of the disaster declaration process.

While a governor or a tribal leader may make a request, the decision to issue a declaration rests solely with the President (Congress has no formal role in the process). The Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (1998) established the disaster declaration process, and defines the scope of federal assistance to be offered…as well as conditions under which the President can grant federal aid to requesting states.

Under a presidential-declaration of a “disaster area,” there are two categories of federal declarations: an emergency declaration and a major disaster declaration. Under these distinctions, the types and amount of aid available offered will differ, depending on the kind of declaration.

Emergency Declaration:

Under an emergency declaration, federal assistance is allocated to state and local efforts for emergency services. This means that any federal assistance of allocated benefits will not go to individuals affected by a disaster.

Major Declaration

Under a major declaration, federal assistance is made available to individuals, and is based on preliminary damage assessments (FEMA assessments considers various factors—such as the extent and types of damage, the cost of the emergency to state governments, the effect on critical public facilities, as well as the cost of response efforts, the number of damaged homes and buildings, the number of people displaced, and threats to health and safety—to determine the magnitude of a disaster and the type of assistance it will recommend).

Under this particular type of disaster declaration, there are three general categories of FEMA/federal assistance offered: individual, public, and hazard mitigation programs.

Individual & Households Assistance - Federal aid programs include individual assistance for small business, grants for grants, and home rental and rebuilding assistance (as implied, this type of assistance is only available in the case of a major declaration). The Individuals and Households Program provides money (individual awards are capped at approximately $30,000) and services to people whose losses are not covered by insurance. It includes:

  • Housing assistance, which can be the provision of temporary housing, home repair and/or replacement. Other Needs Assistance (ONA), which is financial aid for people with [other] disaster-related expenses such as medical, dental, funeral, and replacing lost personal property, etc.
  • Small Business Administration (SBA) Disaster Loans, which are federally subsidized loans to repair or replace homes and/or businesses that sustained damages not covered by individual insurance policies.
  • Disaster Unemployment Assistance, which—as the name implies—provides unemployment and employment services to individuals who become unemployed as a direct result of a disaster.
  • Legal Services, through the Young Lawyers Division of the American Bar Association (ABA). This particular assistance program provides free legal assistance to victims of natural disasters.
  • Special Tax Considerations (federal and state) for all documented losses from a declared disaster may be deducted from that year’s federal income tax return.
  • Crisis Counseling assistance, which provides financial support goes to the state to help with screening and diagnostic and counseling services (in many case, federal funding provides up to 9 months of crisis counseling, community outreach).

Public Assistance - FEMA provides aid to public and some nongovernmental/nonprofit organizations for projects in debris removal, emergency protective measures, and as recovery and repairs as they relates to road systems and bridges, water control facilities, public buildings, public utilities, and parks and recreation, etc. (see: Public Assistance Program Fact Sheet).

Hazard Mitigation Assistance – Federal financial assistance for sustained measures (such as ad hoc programs and proposed policy measures) that go toward preventing damage, loss of life or property and long-term recovery costs for future disasters (see: Local Hazard Mitigation Planning Fact Sheet and Mitigation Projects).

Former President Obama, after touring the disaster zone created as a result of the Waldo Canyon Fire in (2012)
Former President Obama, after touring the disaster zone created as a result of the Waldo Canyon Fire in (2012)

The Individual Application Process

Hopefully, those who reside in areas where certain natural disasters occur relatively frequently keep important papers and documents in a centralized location that is easily accessible in times of need (such as a safe or lockbox). This is because in almost every application for local, state, and federal assistance, documents such as personal ID’s, social security cards, insurance policies, rental agreements/mortgages, medical records, and other important documents will be required to not only complete the necessary paperwork, but to prove loss after such an event. Gathering these papers is the very first step toward applying for assistance.

The second step is to verify whether an area/county has been included (i.e., covered) by a disaster declaration. The best way to do this is to log on to http://www.fema.gov/news/ via an available tablet, smart phone, or computer. If you area is found to be included in a declaration zone, you must first file a claim with your existing home or auto insurance company for damages. The federal disaster assistance program covers expenses and incidentals not covered by personally-maintained policies, so this much be done as a matter of both record and law (Important: applications for FEMA assistance are time-crucial, and should be made within 60 days of a disaster declaration. While deadlines might be extended on occasion, this is not always the case, so to ensure consideration, applications should be made within the initial timeframe).

After personal insurance claims have been filed, those seeking assistance should begin their search online by going to www.disasterassistance.gov , or by phone at 1-800-621-FEMA (3362). Hearing/speech impaired ONLY should call 1-800-462-7585. Provide, as detailed as possible, a description of losses caused by the disaster (use photographs and/or cell phone pictures, if possible), insurance information, proof of income, banking, and contact information. When your application is complete, FEMA will assign an application number. Use this number to check your status at any time starting 24 hours after the application is submitted. Apply directly, at FEMA Assistance.

If deemed eligible, applicants will be contacted (i.e., visited) by an inspector to set an appointment to assess the disaster-related damage to personal property. Within 10 days of the visit, applicants will receive an official letter to inform him/her of the decision on request for assistance. An application for an SBA loan may be included with the letter, if assistance is granted. If granted, applicants will be required to apply for the loan—to determine eligibility for housing assistance—before requesting ONA.

Also sometime after the inspection, individuals qualifying for a FEMA grant will either be sent a check by mail, or a direct deposit into their checking or savings account. In addition, successful applicants will receive a letter outlining how the award should be used. Those found not to be qualified will also receive a letter, but one explaining why they did not qualify, as well as explaining the steps to appeal the rejection.

Diagram of a suggested route for pursuing individual assistance.
Diagram of a suggested route for pursuing individual assistance.

Be aware that assistance is available for many necessary expenses and serious needs caused by disasters. These include:

  • Disaster-related child care expenses.
  • Disaster-related medical and dental expenses.
  • Disaster-related funeral and burial expenses.
  • Disaster-caused damages to essential household items (room furnishings, appliances); clothing; tools (specialized or protective clothing and equipment) required for your job; necessary educational materials (computers, school books, supplies).
  • Fuel for the primary heat source (heating oil, gas).
  • Clean-up items (wet/dry vacuum, dehumidifier).
  • Disaster-caused damage to an essential vehicle.
  • Moving and storage expenses caused by the disaster (moving and storage of personal property while repairs are being made to the primary residence, and returning property to the primary address).
  • Other necessary expenses or serious needs as determined by FEMA.
  • Other expenses that are authorized by law.

Finally, in addition to FEMA, there is a whole host of other non-governmental and nonprofit organizations that help affected individuals recover from the effects disasters. Many of these organizations maintain an internet presence, and can be found on a recent posting on our Facebook page (Disaster Planning & Preparation).

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