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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.

Last Updated: 
06/16/2012 - 16:54

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