In recent years, the federal government has declared disasters related to events from hurricanes to wildfires to the coronavirus. Such declarations trigger funding of emergency and recovery efforts led primarily by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
The federal government declares disasters at the state or territory level, meaning the same storm or incident could be responsible for several disaster declarations. For example, while Hurricane Katrina primarily impacted the Gulf Coast region, it led to disaster declarations in 14 states due to how many people were displaced due to the storm. Disaster declarations are one way to measure the number of disasters that occur each year, though it is not an official count. Another way to measure disasters is through the economic impact of the incidents.
The federal government has issued 4,523 disaster declarations in 22 different categories. Thirty-two percent, or 1,469 disasters were fires. All but 320 of those incidents occurred this century. Severe storms account for 988 or 22% of incidents since 1953. The severe storm category is separate from hurricanes (406 or 9% of incidents), snow (165 or 4% of incidents), severe ice storms (69 or 2% of incidents), and coastal storms (29 or less than 1% of incidents.) The biological disaster category was introduced in 2020. COVID-19 was declared a disaster in every state, territory, and Washington, DC.
There are two types of disaster declarations: emergency and major disaster. Both require the approval of the president.
In most cases, governors must submit requests for assistance. Those requests must confirm that dealing with the disaster is beyond the capabilities of state and local governments.
Emergency declarations usually take place during the event, activating aid to protect property, public health, and safety and to prevent the incident from becoming a catastrophic event. The total amount of aid is limited to $5 million. Federal assistance under these declarations includes debris removal, emergency protective services, and housing assistance.
Major disaster declarations generally occur after events take place, providing a wider range of federal programs than emergency declarations. This includes more individual-level services including crisis counseling, unemployment assistance, and food programs. It also allows for the repair or replacement of roads, water facilities, buildings, equipment, utilities, and parks.
Major disaster declarations also fund efforts to keep similar disasters from happening in the future.
The Disaster Relief Fund is managed by FEMA and is the main source of disaster-related spending. It is funded through the congressional appropriations process, both on an annual basis and in response to disasters. During fiscal year 2020, Congress approved $62.9 billion in appropriations for the fund. FEMA spent $52.7 billion of those funds in response to COVID-19 during the year. The highest amount of appropriations ever recorded was in fiscal year 2005. That year, which included Hurricane Katrina, the Disaster Relief Fund received $91 billion (adjusted to 2020 dollars) in appropriations.
While the federal government has provided disaster aid through much of US history, no specific agency oversaw disaster relief until the 1970s. The Presidential Reorganization Plan No. 2 of 1973 put disaster relief under the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The following year, President Richard Nixon signed the Disaster Relief Act of 1974, which created a process for presidents to declare disaster areas warranting federal aid. Five years later, President Jimmy Carter issued an executive order to merge several disaster relief agencies under a single federal umbrella: FEMA.
In 1988, the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act amended the 1974 Disaster Relief Act to establish a system whereby a presidential declaration would trigger financial and physical assistance through FEMA. This created a method for helping state and local governments prepare for and manage responses to disasters.
The latest FEMA reorganization occurred in response to the 9/11 attacks, placing the agency under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). In 2003, Congress created DHS to consolidate the national agencies tasked with preventing and managing attacks and disasters.
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