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The Disaster Declaration Process, Spring Flood Edition

As you may have read on this blog and in the news, spring flood season is upon us.

At the end of last year, we did a post on FEMA’s role in winter weather, and thought we would share what the disaster declaration process looks like when it comes to flooding.

The bottom line is that – as with all disasters – FEMA is not the team, FEMA is only part of the team.

When natural disasters, such as flooding, occur, first responders are the first ones on the ground, providing the emergency assistance that protects the public’s health and safety, while meeting immediate human needs. These first responders include local emergency and public works personnel, volunteers, humanitarian organizations, and numerous private interest groups in each community.

In many, if not most, flood events, that part of the team, along with state and local emergency management officials, has the resources that are needed to respond and recover from the event.

What if they need federal help?

In cases where a flood event overwhelms the resources of state, territory, tribal, local government, and voluntary agencies, a governor may request an emergency declaration or a major disaster declaration.  Both declaration types authorize the president to provide supplemental federal disaster assistance.  However, the event related to the disaster declaration, as well as the type and amount of assistance may differ.


  • Emergency Declarations: An emergency declaration can be declared for any occasion or instance when the president determines federal assistance is needed. Emergency declarations supplement state and local efforts in providing emergency services, such as the protection of lives, property, public health, and safety, or to lessen or avert the threat of a catastrophe in any part of the United States. The total amount of assistance provided for a single emergency may not exceed $5 million. If this amount is exceeded, the president shall report to Congress.
  • The president can declare a major disaster declaration for any natural event, including any hurricane, tornado, storm, high water, wind-driven water, tidal wave, tsunami, earthquake, volcanic eruption, landslide, mudslide, snowstorm, or drought, or, regardless of cause, fire, flood, or explosion, that the president believes has caused damage of such severity that it is beyond the combined capabilities of state, territory, tribal, local government, and voluntary agencies to respond. A major disaster declaration provides a wide range of federal assistance programs for individuals and public infrastructure, including funds for both emergency and permanent work.

When does a governor make a request?

Sometimes – like the floods in Tennessee last year – the governor makes a request before or soon after the storm ends, and in other cases, a governor may wait until after the flood waters recede, in order to get a full assessment of the damage, before requesting a disaster declaration.

And what exactly do you mean by “assistance”?

A major disaster declaration request will also include a request for assistance under one or two broad categories of assistance, which we refer to as public assistance (PA) and individual assistance (IA). Public assistance is financial assistance for repairing public infrastructure, like roads, schools, fire stations, etc.

Individual assistance can be provided to eligible individuals and households who are uninsured, or under-insured, and suffered losses due to disaster damage. It’s important to remember that by law, the amount of individual assistance a person or household can receive is capped (just over $30,000 for this year), and may not cover losses to the extent that a flood insurance policy would, which is why we are often encouraging families to purchase insurance. This assistance is also intended to support only necessary and serious needs that resulted from the disaster. The best way to make sure you and your family are protected against the devastating impacts of flooding is to have flood insurance.

FEMA is also able to provide assistance by serving as a coordinator for the federal agencies that can help support response and recovery efforts. For example, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers uses its engineering and contracting capabilities to support FEMA and other federal, state and local government agencies in a wide variety of missions during natural and man-made disasters. Learn more here.

But isn’t this all complicated?

This is the formal process, but in reality, every day, through our 10 regional offices we are working hand in hand with our state counterparts to plan for whatever the next emergency may be.

But as with most things, Administrator Fugate puts it best. Below is a video of when Administrator Fugate explained the process to the White House press corps, following the floods that devastated Tennessee a little less than a year ago.

What We're Watching: 3/4/11

Stormy, wet weekend for many
Forecasts from the National Weather Service are calling for rain and thunderstorms across much of the Midwest for the next few days.  Large portions of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, and Tennessee are under flood watches or warnings due to rapidly melting snow and rainfall, so make sure you’re aware of local conditions.  We’re closely monitoring the severe weather through our regional offices in Chicago and Atlanta, and working closely with our state partners, as well as the National Weather Service.

The Northeast is also expected to experience rainy, stormy conditions through the weekend, so make sure you're taking steps to get prepared.  To view your local forecast and outlook on severe weather, visit

Wildfires around the U.S.
Parts of Florida have been fighting a round of wildfires this week.   Our Regional office in Atlanta is in close coordination with State, local and first response agencies as they respond to the wildfires.  We stand ready to support them if assistance is requested.

Planning for real, not easy
We came across this article with some great emergency preparedness tips for persons with disabilities and their service animals.  As Federal, State, and local agencies, businesses and individuals plan for emergencies, it is imperative we plan for every member of the community, not just some. For more on emergency planning for people with disabilities, visit

Red Cross Month
March also marks Red Cross Month, as proclaimed by President Obama.  As a valuable part of the emergency management team, we’d like to recognize this special month.  Even if you aren’t an active Red Cross supporter, donor, or volunteer, we encourage you to look for opportunities to volunteer in your community, especially with a member of the National Voluntary Agencies Active in Disasters (NVOAD).  This collection of organizations, which includes the American Red Cross, shares knowledge and resources throughout the disaster cycle - preparation, response and recovery - to help disaster survivors and their communities.

Video: Couple shares their flooding preparedness tips

Many times, the most useful and memorable advice comes from people sharing their experiences and that holds especially true when it comes to advice on how to prepare before disaster strikes.

Check out this video from a couple in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and how they are taking steps to protect their home from flooding:

If you live in an area that has a risk of flooding the tips in the video above are great places to start getting prepared.  Here are some other ways you can prepare your family, home, or business for flooding:

  • Visit – for details on getting an emergency kit, making your family emergency plan, and being informed about the dangers of floods
  • Purchase flood insurance – flood insurance policies typically take 30 days to become effective, so make sure to purchase flood insurance as a way to prepare before potential flooding
  • Share what you’re doing with a neighbor – each of us can play a role in helping our communities become more resilient by sharing our own preparedness tips with each other

How are you preparing for this flood season? Share your tips below.

Engaging Voluntary Agencies Before, During, and After a Disaster

Voluntary agencies are a vital part of a community’s ability to prepare for, respond to and  recovery from disasters.   Before a disaster, voluntary agencies help communities and families get prepared by providing disaster training, raising awareness regarding vital health and safety issues. After a disaster strikes, voluntary and faith-based organizations respond alongside state and local emergency responders, helping to address immediate needs of survivors. 

At FEMA, we engage the vitally important voluntary agency sector through Voluntary Agency Liaisons (VALs).  VALs act as a bridge between the community and the government. 

To better understand the roles of a VAL, here is a quick Q&A on the work that they do before, during and after a disaster.

What is the role of a VAL before a disaster?
Like most jobs in emergency management, one of the most important roles for a VAL is as a preparedness advocate.  VALs support state and local Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOADs), assisting with planning, preparation, training and exercises.

VALs work closely with these organizations to deliver updates on FEMA programs and initiatives, challenge them to be prepared for disasters and encourage non-profits to be a part of VOAD.  A strong VOAD will  promote disaster networking, training, program development, and exercises to help build the necessary disaster resiliency in communities, and speed a community’s recovery.

Once a disaster strikes, what role does a VAL play in the response?
When disaster strikes, VALs become a critical avenue to make sure voluntary agencies and the federal government are sharing information and working together as a team to help disaster survivors.

VALs also give guidance to voluntary agencies on federal assistance programs including eligibility requirements, program deadlines, and emphasize the importance of avoiding duplication of benefits to survivors.  They provide guidance to newer voluntary agencies interested in getting involved in relief operations, and they assist States with the management of volunteers not associated with a specific voluntary agency, and the use of unsolicited donated goods.

How do VALs work with voluntary agencies to assist in the Long Term Recovery?
After the immediate, short term needs of the community have been met, the emphasis of the emergency management team shifts to addressing the long term recovery needs of the community.  Survivors may need extensive help to recover and for some, the assistance that FEMA is able to provide under law, is simply not enough. Through Long Term Recovery Groups (LTRGs), local communities take control in the recovery process and empower volunteers to make a difference in the lives of disaster survivors. Check out this video for more on LTRGs:

VALs work with the LTRGs to identify possible LTRG participants based on previous disasters, help with disaster training, and assist in identifying any unmet needs. VALs also provide resources for LTRG formation and function, as well as information on mitigation measures and connections to mitigation specialists to help the community rebuild using mitigation best practices. These help the community build or repair homes and structures in a way that will reduce vulnerabilities, help prevent future losses and make the community more resilient and sustainable.

- Deb

FEMA Regions Continue Supporting States for Spring Flooding

The National Weather Service has issued forecasts indicating communities in the Dakotas and Minnesota are at a significant risk for major flooding this spring, and Ohio and other states are already dealing with significant floods. Indeed, disaster season 2011 is upon us, and we are working together to coordinate closely with states in the impacted regions as they respond to or prepare for flooding, and stand ready to assist them any way we can.

Our regional offices in Chicago and in Denver continue to monitor forecasts, plan for extreme flooding, and anticipate the commodities and resources that might be requested by the states of North and South Dakota, and Minnesota. In fact, since last year, we have been working closely with our state partners to incorporate lessons learned from past flood seasons into our emergency planning for this year, and continue to communicate with them to discuss emergency planning, and encourage personal preparations such as purchasing insurance, pre-assembling emergency supplies and creating a personal plan of action.

In February, our offices met with our respective federal, state and local officials, emergency managers, and representatives from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the National Guard and NOAA. These meetings allowed us to hear directly from many of our response partners on coordinating efforts for this year’s flood season.

The shared borders of Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota hold a rich history, common to all residents. These areas also share some challenges, particularly flooding, and potentially this year more than ever. FEMA is committed to supporting all three states with emergency assistance should they suffer severe impacts to overland and river flooding.

One final note: before flood waters rise, it’s important that residents and business owners become involved and prepared. Check out this blog post from Deputy Administrator Tim Manning about how you can prepare for flooding.

- Andrew and Robin

Marking the Eight Year Anniversary of the Department of Homeland Security


As many of you know, FEMA is a sub-agency of the Department of Homeland Security, and today is the eight-year anniversary of the department. We’re proud to work alongside all our DHS colleagues every day to do our part to protect our citizens and communities and strengthen our nation’s resiliency against all hazards. As Secretary Napolitano notes in a blog post today, “homeland security begins with hometown security” – nowhere is this more true than in the world of emergency management.

So as we mark DHS’s eighth birthday, we’d like to take an opportunity to thank all of our state and local partners, emergency managers, tribal governments, the private sector, the non-profit and voluntary organizations, first responders, and countless others who are critical members of our emergency management and homeland security team. Thank you for your hard work, service and contributions that help make our streets, neighborhoods and communities safer and healthier places to live.

Check out Secretary Napolitano’s blog post on the eighth anniversary here:

And learn more about eight years of the Department of Homeland Security here:


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