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Bringing in Federal Disaster Help: The Disaster Declaration Process


Most of you have been following the tornadoes that struck several southern and mid-western states last week. As you may have read on this blog and in the news, FEMA and its federal partners remain in close contact with emergency officials in impacted states across the country.

We did a post last March on FEMA’s role in responding to spring flooding, which also included an explanation of the disaster declaration process. As state and local emergency officials assess damage in their jurisdictions, we thought it would be helpful to citizens to once again explain how disaster declarations are requested.

As with all disasters, FEMA supports a disaster response team that also includes tribal, territorial, state, and local governments as well as the private sector and voluntary organizations.

When natural disasters like tornadoes occur, local first responders are the ones on the ground who provide 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 most cases, first responders, along with state and local emergency management officials, have the resources that are needed to respond and recover from the event.

What if they need federal help?

In cases where a severe weather event overwhelms the resources at the state level and below, a governor may request an emergency declaration or a major disaster declaration. Both declaration types, if signed by the president, would authorize FEMA to provide supplemental federal disaster assistance. However, the event that triggers the disaster declaration, as well as the type and amount of assistance provided 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?

Prior to making a request for federal assistance and based on initial information received from local officials, the Governor can request support from the FEMA to conduct joint preliminary damage assessments, or PDAs, for both Individual Assistance (homeowners, renters and businesses) and/or Public Assistance (debris removal, emergency protective measures and infrastructure). This is not a request for a disaster declaration, but one of the initial steps in the declaration process.

Local, state and federal officials make up the joint PDA teams working to identify the extent of disaster damage. The PDA teams look at the losses to households, businesses, public infrastructure and local government services as well as the impact to the community. All of the data collected during the PDAs is provided to the Governor’s office to determine whether the event is beyond the state and local capabilities, then the Governor may submit a formal disaster declaration request to the FEMA regional office.

And what exactly do you mean by “assistance”?

A major disaster declaration request will include a request for assistance under one or two broad categories of assistance, which we refer to as public assistance and individual assistance. 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, and may not cover losses to the extent that an insurance policy would. This assistance is also intended to support only necessary and serious needs that resulted from the disaster.

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 work hand in hand with our state counterparts to plan for whatever the next emergency may be.

Last Updated: 
06/02/2017 - 09:29


Can other DHS Agencies assist with the cleanup? I work for the U.S. Coast Guard and would like to assist with the cleanup. I lived through Hurricane Andrew over 19 years ago and I feel helpliss watching these people suffer. <br /><br />Mike St. Germain<br />305-415-7112

We just had a joint damage assessment done here in NC due to tornados. The federal assessors did not even get out of the car to assess damages, how can you do a true damage assessment without getting out of your car. They advised they knew homeowners in this area had insurance. At least perform a valid assessment before denying a community any assistance