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Federal Disaster Response

By - Tim Rosado

President Biden issued an emergency declaration for California (January 9) because of conditions arising from successive and severe winter storms.

Depending on a future damage assessment after the storms, the President may make one or more “Major Disaster” declarations which grows Federal support significantly beyond the support provided under a mere emergency designation.

Why Declarations?

Both emergency and major disaster declarations come after requests (and Federal-state discussions on the declaration specifics) of the relevant state’s governor, who must declare that the emergency and/or disaster response is beyond the capability of the state. An exception to such requests is in the case of emergencies or disasters where the Federal Government has primary responsibility (e.g., the COVID-19 pandemic response). The core policy rationale for such declarations is generally two fold. First, Federal assistance is intended to supplement—not supplant—state/local/territorial assistance. A declaration process reflects the Federal Government's partnership support role for more significant disaster emergencies.

Second, the declarations represent the formal/legal means by which the Federal Government gets itself organized and mobilized. This is important given the size, scope, and dispersion of the Federal operations and resources, as well as the dire importance of emergency response. For each declaration, the President designates a Federal coordinating individual.

Post-Disaster Help to Individuals and Households

In responding to major disasters (not mere emergencies), the Federal Government provides critical financial and other resource support to governments, organizations, farmers, and businesses. When disasters broadly impact communities, assistance to individuals and households can be the most important form of assistance.

To the extent not provided by insurance, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) disaster assistance to individuals/households primarily includes:

  • Temporary financial assistance for housing if a home is unlivable because of a disaster including, if needed, lodging expense reimbursement at a hotel for a short period of time.

  • Home repair to make a home “safe, sanitary, and fit to occupy.”

  • Home replacement, but only if FEMA has available funding, and also only up to the Individuals and Households Program (IHP) maximum for emergencies and major disasters. The Small Business Administration (SBA) administers a homeownership and rental recovery loan program separate from FEMA assistance where eligible primary-residence homeowners can borrow up to $200,000 to replace or repair their primary residence. Renters and homeowners can borrow up to $40,000 to replace or repair personal property. In addition, the Department of Housing and Urban Development has programs providing mortgage relief and refinancing for eligible homeowners who need to home repair, or who need to replace homes outright after a disaster.

  • Other types of support–i.e., “other needs assistance,” or ONA. Such assistance might cover, for example, child care costs, clothing, medical/dental care, funeral expenses, and moving and storage, among many other types of needs.

Each individual/household can currently receive IHP grants of up to $37,900 for housing-related needs and $37,900 for ONA. That means, for example, that if a home is eligible for replacement, a homeowner can only receive a maximum (not a minimum) grant of up to $37,900 through FEMA. Getting the maximum would depend on, among other things, insurance coverage of eligible costs. The Congressional Research Service (CRS) recently issued a report summarizing IHP benefits.

Federal Disaster Relief Funding

The Federal Disaster Relief Fund (DRF), within FEMA, is the primary funding source for Federal disaster assistance programs. Congress appropriates resources into the DRF annually, as well as through special emergency appropriations following significant disasters. Disbursements from the DRF are made on an ongoing basis, often for years after a disaster.

The latest DRF Monthly Report (through November 2022) shows positive DRF balances of $21.5 billion, though this was prior to a December infusion of $5 billion in new funding within a disaster funding supplemental for fiscal year (FY) 2023.

The December disaster funding supplemental totaled more than $38 billion and financed a variety of needs and purposes, not just for general disaster response. Almost every year, Congress approves one or more disaster relief supplementals to address needs that are not necessarily served by regular annual funding. Most notably, supplemental funding is often used to address urgent infrastructure damage recovery needs, to provide assistance to farmers for damaged crops, and to normalize Federal agency funding disrupted because of an increased operating tempo tied to disaster response.

Disasters Results - 2022

NOAA announced (January 10) that the U.S. experienced 18 separate weather and climate-related events during 2022, each costing at least $1 billion. These events led to 474 deaths and cost a combined $165 billion.

The events number is the third highest number on record (tied with 2011 and 2017). The year 2020 had the highest number on record–22, followed by 20 events in 2021.

Hurricane Ian was the most costly event, with costs nearing an estimated $113 billion, ranking third in the most costly hurricanes on record since 1980, behind Hurricanes Katrina (2005) and Harvey (2017).

The number of recorded tornadoes ended the year about 9% above the 1991-2020 average across the contiguous US, with 1,331 tornadoes reported. March 2022 had triple the average number of tornadoes reported (293) and the most tornadoes reported for any March in the 1950-2022 record.


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