Why Do We Need Federal Disaster Relief?

This is a guest post by Logan Harper, the Community Manager for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hillís online Masters in Public Administration program Ė a top degree for public service leaders.

Four days into the New Year, while under mounting pressure from New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, Congress approved $9.7 billion in aid for Hurricane Sandy relief. The bill will allow the FEMA-administered National Flood Insurance Program to pay out claims to businesses, homeowners and renters affected by Sandy and help with the ongoing relief effort to restore the region.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is the most prominent agency for involved in disaster relief. FEMA, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, is responsible for the federal government’s role in disaster prevention, preparation, response, and recovery.

FEMA was established on April 1, 1979 by President Jimmy Carter. One of the first disasters the agency faced was the partial core meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant; as part of its response to the accident, FEMA launched the Radiological Emergency Preparedness Program to handle preparation for future nuclear power plant accidents as well as ensure the health and safety of people residing in close proximity to nuclear power plant. Since its inception, FEMA has handled crises ranging from natural disasters such as the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and Hurricane Andrew in 1992, and manmade disasters including the toxic contamination of Love Canal.

In order to effectively respond to national disasters, FEMA has developed a comprehensive emergency system to aid in relief efforts. The agency, headquartered in Washington, D.C., has ten regional offices across the country. Each office works with strategic partners as well as federal, local, state, tribal governments and non-profits. The offices implement necessary relief measures and reduce the extent of damage within its respective region.

However, before FEMA can participate in any recovery efforts, the president must declare a major disaster. Once a disaster has been declared, federal funding for emergency work becomes available on a cost-sharing basis to eligible state and local governments.

While the President is in charge of authorizing FEMAís involvement in relief efforts, FEMA is responsible for ensuring a quality federal response to disasters. As part of its efforts to help state and local recovery, FEMA developed the National Disaster Recovery Framework (NDRF), a guide to promote effective coordination and recovery planning across all levels of government before a disaster occurs.

The NDRF defines six primary recovery areas, assigning one to a corresponding federal agency that supports local governments with recovery efforts in that area. FEMA handles community planning and capacity building, the Department of Commerce is responsible for economic recovery, the Department of Health and Human Services deals with health and social services, the Department of Housing Urban Development handles housing, the Army Corps of Engineers addresses infrastructure systems, and the Department of the Interior focuses on natural and cultural resources.

Presently in field-testing in Alabama, Missouri, and Tennessee, the FEMA seeks to use the NDRF to construct a structure that encourages concentrated focus during recovery and formally establishes how the United States responds to a disaster.


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Grace Adams
Grace Adams3 years ago

Banks require anyone building in a flood prone area to buy flood insurance. Private insurance firms do underwriting, customer service, and claims handling. But the private insurance firms buy re-insurance from the federal government to cover most (90% ?) of the risk. So most flood victims have paid something in the way of insurance premiums against the flood that damaged them. To some extent, for government to remove my neighbors' trash from curbside is a service to me as well as to the neighbor whose trash is removed. Same way with debris from a disaster.

Barbara M.3 years ago

Sorry -- when did Care2 start truncating long comments?

And how on earth did Sharon R get it to accept her huge piece?

Barbara M.3 years ago

To Philip S:

You'll be glad to know that the Disaster Relief Act agrees with you -- FEMA does not take over in a disaster. Their main job is to pump money to the affected State, which then distributes it where it's needed / legally mandated.

However, back in the 80's, big disasters happened to a couple of States that weren't up to the job and an outcry arose because FEMA wasn't acting like a "Federal 911". After that, the law was amended to allow FEMA to take a more active role, including the advance stockpiling of supplies that are needed after major disasters.

While this mostly consists of things like plastic tarps for damaged roofs, trailers to house people when the local supply of housing can't hold them, and specific medical supplies, people who are planning for major disasters also have to prepare for mass casualties -- think Fukushima.

There's a lot we take for granted that comes from the mortuary industry, because normally families handle deaths privately. But it's like any other industry -- it's not scaled for a sudden huge increase in business. And one reason we have so many laws about the disposal of bodies is that they are a dire public-health hazard.

It would be silly for every State to stockpile the supplies, including mortuary supplies, they'd need in case of a serious disaster which might never happen -- the sensible way to prepare for sudden spikes in need is to buy supplies in advance, create one national stockpile of them

Barbara M.3 years ago

I'm dismayed that this article didn't fill in one major gap in the news coverage of the flap in Congress over funding the Sandy damage.

There's a Federal law on the books, the Disaster Relief Act, that mandates that when a State or locality qualifies for a Presidential disaster declaration, they are entitled to a specified array of relief aid. This is not some kind of welfare -- it is a legal entitlement. To qualify for a Presidential declaration, there are formulas to determine whether a State's economy can reasonably afford to pay for the damage. Only when the burden is too great for the State do the Federal benefits kick in, but when they do, the Federal government is obligated by its own law to pay them.

The law also establishes a pool of money, the Disaster Relief Fund, that does not expire from year to year, in the expectation that Congress will keep it reasonably full and will top it up promptly when an extraordinary disaster happens.

Before George W Bush, major disasters were pretty much the only time the Emergency Budget Supplemental Request was used -- in the case of disasters, Congress deemed the need for speedy relief outweighed the budget-balancing rules, and therefore exempted the Emergency Supplemental from all rules.

Of course, Bush exploited this loophole in the rules, and funded everything he considered to be part of his "War on Terror" through the Emergency Supplemental process, which is how he doubled the national debt in 8 years. I

Carla van der Meer

I'm with Philip S, FEMA is up to something weird with the body bags and 'camps'.

Ken W.
Ken W.3 years ago

Right on Susan A !!!!

Ken W.
Ken W.3 years ago

When help is needed help should come and it should not matter were it comes from !!

Marianne Good
Past Member 3 years ago

Thanks for sharing.

Mary B.
Mary B.3 years ago

If you don't want FEMA funds after a disaster in your area, don't accept them, then apply to the government to return what tiny percentage of your 'hard earned' tax dollors are being handed out'like candy' to who ever wants some help.It's obvious many of you have never had an original thought, probably in your whole life, and you just keep going over old ideas, looking for more ammunition to throw at those you think are your opponents.If you didn't waste your time stinking up the earth with your foul misconceptions, you'd have to get a life and live in community with others and actually mature into decent humans.

Philip S.
Philip S.3 years ago

FEMA should just help states coordinate not take over the operation. It should be left up to states after that. Why did FEMA buy all those body bags and mass coffins?