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Public Assistance Guide

Chapter 1: Disaster Assistance Overview

Table of Contents Foreword Acronyms Chapters: 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5

Disaster Assistance Overview

Federal assistance in the wake of disasters is coordinated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), a component of the Department of Homeland Security. Under the Public Assistance (PA) Program, FEMA provides supplemental aid to states1, communities, and certain private nonprofit organizations (PNPs) to help them recover from disasters as quickly as possible. This chapter describes the events that occur after a disaster strikes and introduces the PA Program.

When Disaster Strikes
Each year, the United States is struck by disasters that severely affect communities and State and local governments. The list of events that cause disasters includes natural events, such as hurricanes, tornadoes, storms, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, landslides, snowstorms, and droughts; and regardless of cause, fires, floods, and explosions. The effects of disasters may be limited to a single community, such as when a small town is hit by a tornado, or they may be widespread, such as when a hurricane affects several States. Regardless of the scope of a disaster, the affected communities and States often need the assistance of the Federal government when responding to and recovering from the event. This assistance is available under the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, 42 U.S.C. § 5121 - 5207 (hereinafter referred to as the Stafford Act).

Communities are responsible for the protection of their residents, and local emergency response forces will always be the first line of defense when a disaster strikes. The intent of the Stafford Act is that Federal assistance be supplemental to local, state, and private relief organizations. Nevertheless, it is not necessary for the community to exhaust its resources before it requests federal assistance.

When a disaster occurs and a locality has responded to the best of its ability and is, or will be, overwhelmed by the magnitude of the damage, the community turns to the State for help. The Governor, after examining the situation, may direct that the state's emergency plan be executed, direct the use of State police or the National Guard, or commit other resources, as appropriate to the situation. If it is evident that the situation is or will be beyond the combined capabilities of the local and State resources, the Governor may request that the President declare, under the authority of the Stafford Act, that an emergency or major disaster exists in the State.

While this request is being processed, local and state government officials should not delay in taking the necessary response and recovery actions. Such actions should not be dependent upon whether there will be federal assistance.

Declaration Process
The request for a declaration must come from the Governor or Acting Governor. Before sending a formal request letter to the President, the Governor will request that FEMA conduct a joint Preliminary Damage Assessment (PDA) with the State to verify damage and estimate the amount of supplemental assistance that will be needed. If the Governor believes that Federal assistance is necessary after this assessment is complete, the Governor sends a request letter to the President, directed through the Regional Administrator (RA) of the appropriate FEMA region. The RA reviews the request and forwards it with a recommendation to the Director of FEMA who, in turn, makes a recommendation to the President. In the aftermath of a significant event causing extensive damage and loss of life, the declaration process may be expedited. The President makes the decision whether to declare a major disaster or emergency. After the initial declaration, the person designated by the Governor as the Governor's Authorized Representative (GAR) may request additional areas to be eligible for assistance or for additional types of assistance as deemed necessary.

After a declaration is made, FEMA will designate the area eligible for assistance and the types of assistance available. With the declaration, the President appoints a Federal Coordinating Officer (FCO). The FCO is responsible for coordinating all Federal disaster assistance programs administered by FEMA, other Federal departments and agencies, and voluntary organizations. At the same time, the RA or one of his or her staff will be appointed as the Disaster Recovery Manager (DRM). The DRM is responsible for managing the FEMA assistance programs. The DRM authority often is delegated to the FCO. The Governor may appoint a State Coordinating Officer (SCO) as the FCO's counterpart. Generally, the SCO and the GAR are the same person. State emergency operations plans should describe the role of the SCO as the Governor's representative to act in cooperation with the FCO to administer disaster recovery efforts.

FEMA may also establish a Joint Field Office (JFO) in or near the disaster area. This office is used by Federal and State staff and is the focal point of disaster recovery operations. FEMA and the State manage the implementation of the PA Program from the JFO.

The PA Program
Under the PA Program, which is authorized by the Stafford Act, FEMA awards grants to assist state and local governments and certain Private Nonprofit (PNP) entities with the response to and recovery from disasters. Specifically, the program provides assistance for debris removal, emergency protective measures, and permanent restoration of infrastructure. The federal share of these expenses typically cannot be less than 75 percent of eligible costs. The program also encourages protection from future damage by providing assistance for hazard mitigation measures during the recovery process. The PA Program encourages planning for disaster recovery, but PA Program funds may not be used for the costs of planning. The costs incurred implementing the plans are eligible for reimbursement only if they meet PA Program eligibility criteria.

The PA Program is based on a partnership of FEMA, state, and local officials.

FEMA is responsible for managing the program, approving grants, and providing technical assistance to the State and applicants.

The State, in most cases, acts as the Grantee for the PA Program. FEMA, the State, and the applicant are all responsible for grants awarded under the PA program. The State educates potential applicants, works with FEMA to manage the program, and is responsible for implementing and monitoring the grants awarded under the program. In some instances, the State may take a more active role in overall management of certain disasters, as discussed later in this chapter under State Management of Disasters. Some State regulations prohibit the State from acting as grantee for an Indian tribe. In such cases, or upon the tribe's choice, a tribal government may act as its own Grantee.

Local officials are responsible for identifying damage, providing sufficient data for FEMA to develop an accurate scope and cost estimate for doing the work and approving grants, and managing the projects funded under the PA Program.

The PA Program staff consists of management and field personnel who assist the applicant during the recovery process. These staff members include a Public Assistance Group Supervisor (Public Assistance Officer), Public Assistance Coordination Crew Leader (Public Assistance Coordinator), Public Assistance Project Specialist (Project Officer), and Public Assistance Technical Specialists (Specialists). The duties of each are described below.

PA Group Supervisor. The PA Program is managed at the Joint Field Information Office (JFO) by the PA Group Supervisor. As the program manager, the PA Group Supervisor advises the FCO on all PA Program matters; manages the operation of PA Program staff and any coordination between the PA Program and other arms of the federal disaster recovery effort; works with state counterparts; and ensures that the PA Program is operating in compliance with all laws, regulations, and policies.

Public Assistance Coordination (PAC) Crew Leader. At the beginning of the disaster recovery process, FEMA, in coordination with the state, assigns a PAC Crew Leader to each applicant. The PAC Crew Leader is a customer service manager who works with the applicant to resolve disaster-related needs and ensure that the applicant's projects are processed as efficiently and expeditiously as possible. By being involved from the declaration to the obligation of funds, the PAC Crew Leader ensures continuity of service throughout the delivery of the PA Program. A PAC Crew Leader generally has responsibility for more than one applicant. The PAC Crew Leader's specific responsibilities are described in more detail in Chapter 3.

PA Project Specialists and Technical Specialists. Project and Technical Specialists are resources for the applicant. Typically, Project Specialists are responsible for assisting with the development of projects and cost estimates. While a Project Specialist is generally knowledgeable with regard to the PA Program, a Technical Specialist usually has a defined area of expertise that a Project Specialist may call upon in the development of a specific project. Technical Specialists assigned to a JFO may have experience in such areas as roads and bridges, utility infrastructure, debris removal and disposal, environmental and historic preservation compliance, insurance, and cost estimating. The Project Specialist's and Technical Specialist's specific responsibilities are described in more detail in Chapter 3.

The Project Specialist and Technical Specialist positions are primarily staffed by FEMA personnel. However, FEMA often relies on state, other federal agency and contractor resources to supplement these positions. State personnel may also be assigned to work with FEMA staff and local officials involved with response and recovery efforts.

Once the JFO is established and appropriate FEMA and State personnel are deployed, applicants can begin the process of requesting and receiving Public Assistance. The remainder of this guide:

  • outlines the eligibility requirements of the PA Program, including a detailed discussion of the applicants, facilities, types of work, and costs that are eligible for assistance under the PA Program (Chapter 2);
  • describes the process of applying for Public Assistance, including a discussion of the project formulation process and the Federal, State, and applicant roles and responsibilities in development of projects, scopes of work, and cost estimates (Chapter 3);
  • identifies insurance requirements, hazard mitigation opportunities, environmental concerns including floodplain management, and historic preservation issues that affect program processing and funding (Chapter 4); and
  • discusses project management operations (Chapter 5).

State Management of Disasters
Under the State Management of Disasters (SMD) initiative, in some cases an interested and capable state, or tribal government acting as its own grantee, may manage the PA field operation, including project eligibility reviews, process control, and resource allocation on small disasters. The participating state voluntarily enters into an Operational Agreement with FEMA, which entrusts many aspects of program management to the State. FEMA retains obligation authority, ensures compliance with environmental and historic preservation laws, participates in quality control reviews with the state, and provides technical assistance as requested by the State.

Small disasters are disasters that warrant a major disaster declaration by the President, but are limited in scope and size generally as defined by the following:

  • statewide infrastructure damage up to $2 per capita, or
  • limited to debris removal and emergency protective measures.

For a State to be eligible to manage a disaster under this initiative, the State must have:

  • recent disaster experience;
  • adequate State staff;
  • an SMD Addendum to the State Administrative Plan for Public Assistance;
  • a fiscal accounting system that can track specific projects, prepare for and undergo audit, and be used to evaluate appeals;
  • an established record of having met deadlines for grant management activities; and
  • approval by FEMA.

June 2007
This guide describes FEMA's Public Assistance Program's basic provisions and application procedures. Because this document is not exhaustive and the provisions are subject to modification, the information contained herein should be verified with FEMA PA Program officials before becoming the basis for decision making.

Last Updated: 
02/13/2015 - 10:53