How Our Federal Government Handles National Disasters

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Close up of Police Line Do Not Cross tapeHow Our Federal Government Handles National Disasters

When the first images of lead tainted water began appearing out of Flint, Michigan, the American people demanded action. Local and state government responders proved ineffectual at addressing the issue, and for weeks the residents of Flint suffered without safe water to use. Though private aid organizations offered support, it wasn’t until the federal government lent its support that the situation began to stabilize. One of the most important jobs of the federal government is tackling problems that are beyond the abilities of state and local communities to handle on their own. Tornados, flooding, hurricanes, fires, and more devastate parts of the country on a monthly basis, and without the intervention of FEMA and other federal aid agencies, people in those areas might not recover for years. When responding to a disaster, the federal government follows a straightforward process.


Before getting involved, the federal government must evaluate the situation on the ground. The federal government cannot act in the states without the permission of the governor, so all assistance begins with a governor’s request for help. At that point, FEMA examines the extent of the damage, draws up an estimate on the cost and time of recovery, and acts on its evaluation. FEMA can decide to take one of three actions:

  • Emergency Declaration: The federal government may determine that an emergency exists, and requires the immediate, though short-term, attention of the government. This level of support is primarily used to prevent the escalation of a crisis, and offers little long-term recovery or rebuilding support. Flint’s water crisis was given status as an emergency declaration.

Presidential Major Disaster Declaration: Disasters categorized under this label are severe enough that they warrant long-term aid from the federal government. The President approves the release of funds through the President’s Disaster Relief Fund, and the money serves as a supplement to money the state and local governments plan to spend. The highest level of federal involvement is with a Presidential Major Disaster Declaration. If the President makes such a declaration, FEMA and federal agencies initiate long-term plans to help a community rebuild and recover. Unlike the Major Disaster Categorization, a Presidential declaration does not require the same level of matching funds or assistance from the state; the federal government takes over financial responsibility.

  • Denial: FEMA may determine that the disaster is small enough in scope or lacks long-term implications to trigger federal assistance. Governors have up to 30 days to appeal a denial of assistance letter from FEMA. To successfully argue the case, governors must prove the damage estimate is higher than FEMA first calculated, or the capacity of the community to assist in funding recovery is lower than FEMA assumed.


Once a disaster is declared, medical and disaster experts arrive to offer assistance on the ground by using their technical expertise and resources to identify residents harmed by the disaster. FEMA uses mobile field offices to bring help to those affected by the disaster. Through the field offices, the government makes three types of assistance available.

  • Individual Assistance: Individual assistance is any money or material support given directly to an individual, family, or business owner. Residents can seek disaster housing for up to 18 months if their residence was destroyed or made uninhabitable. they may also be eligible for cash grants to help cover expenses while the area recovers and rebuilds. Counseling services also assist residents with overcoming the trauma of the disaster. Anyone receiving individual assistance must comply with strict guidelines for spending aid money, and FEMA uses a rigorous auditing system to check for abuse.

Business owners can also seek relief through the individual assistance program. In addition to the individual assistance program, business owners may apply for small business loans and grants to off-set the lost economic opportunities and damage to the business caused by the disaster.

  • Public Assistance: Major disasters can destroy important infrastructure, including roads, bridges, and power grids. Public assistance subsidizes the cost of repairs by providing 75 percent of the total cost of the project to the community through federal funds.
  • Hazard Mitigation: The best way to handle a disaster is to prevent it from happening. FEMA may determine, as they did with the levees in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, that conditions in the community put them at risk for future disasters. Infrastructure upgrades, relocation of important structures, and stabilization of flood zones are all approved projects for which FEMA can offer financial assistance.

In cases like Flint, where the disaster is specifically related to public health, FEMA may turn over the administration of assistance to the Department of Health and Human Services. Their experience in health screenings and identifying health concerns make HHS officials better equipped to assist and coordinate all agencies involved in the recovery.


Direct federal involvement in disaster relief typically ends when the situation becomes stable. At that point, FEMA and other federal agencies turn over the everyday operations of disaster recovery to state and local authorities. FEMA does assist communities with a long-term recovery framework that will help to rebuild the community and prevent future disasters. The Self-Help Guide is a step-by-step process to analyze recovery projects, estimate the cost of recovery, and implement the plan. The federal government’s role in disaster relief helps communities recover faster and stronger than they could on their own. The clearly defined plan of action from FEMA eliminates confusion, and makes the process of disaster recovery straightforward for all involved.

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