FEMA's Disaster Declaration Process: A Primer
Prepared for Members and Committees of Congress
The Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (referred to as the Stafford
Act - 42 U.S.C. 5721 et seq.) authorizes the President to issue “major disaster” or “emergency”
declarations before or after catastrophes occur. Emergency declarations trigger aid that protects
property, public health, and safety and lessens or averts the threat of an incident becoming a
catastrophic event. A major disaster declaration, issued after catastrophes occur, constitutes
broader authority for federal agencies to provide supplemental assistance to help state and local
governments, families and individuals, and certain nonprofit organizations recover from the
The end result of a presidential disaster declaration is well known, if not entirely understood.
Various forms of assistance are provided, including aid to families and individuals for uninsured
needs and assistance to state and local governments and certain non-profits in rebuilding or
replacing damaged infrastructure.
The amount of assistance provided through Presidential disaster declarations has exceeded $100
billion. Often, in recent years, Congress has enacted supplemental appropriations legislation to
cover unanticipated costs. While the amounts spent by the federal government on different
programs may be reported, and the progress of the recovery can be observed, much less is known
about the process that initiates all of this activity. Yet, it is a process that has resulted in an
average of more than one disaster declaration a week over the last decade.
The disaster declaration procedure is foremost a process that preserves the discretion of the
governor to request assistance and the president to decide to grant, or not to grant, supplemental
help. The process employs some measurable criteria in two broad areas: Individual Assistance
that aids families and individuals and Public Assistance that is mainly for repairs to infrastructure.
The criteria, however, also considers many other factors, in each category of assistance, that help
decision makers assess the impact of an event on communities and states.
Under current law, the decision to issue a declaration rests solely with the President. Congress has
no formal role, but has taken actions to adjust the terms of the process. For example, P.L. 109-295
established an advocate to help small states with the declaration process. More recently, Congress
introduced legislation, H.R. 6658, that would direct FEMA to update some of its criteria for
considering Individual Assistance declarations.
Congress continues to examine the process and has received some recommendations for
improvements. Given the importance of the decision, and the size of the overall spending th
involved, hearings have been held in the 110 Congress to review the declaration process so as to
ensure fairness and equity in the process and its results. This report will be updated as warranted
Backgr ound ..................................................................................................................................... 1
Congress and the Declaration Process.............................................................................................3
The Impetus for Reform............................................................................................................3
The Skepticism of Reform........................................................................................................6
Presidential and Gubernatorial Discretion.......................................................................................7
Preliminary Damage Assessments...................................................................................................8
Factors Considered for Public Assistance in Major Disaster Declarations....................................11
Estimated Cost of the Assistance.............................................................................................11
Recent Multiple Disasters.......................................................................................................13
Other Federal Programs..........................................................................................................13
Factors Considered for Individual Assistance in Major Disaster Declarations.............................14
Concentration of Damages......................................................................................................14
Tr auma ......................................................................................................................... ........... 15
Voluntary Agency Assistance..................................................................................................16
Average Amount of Individual Assistance by State................................................................18
Congressional Considerations for the Declaration Process.....................................................19
The Composition of Preliminary Damage Assessment Teams................................................19
Updating and Revising Individual Assistance Averages.........................................................19
Other Potential Disaster Indicators.........................................................................................20
Table 1. Types of State-Funded Disaster Assistance.....................................................................16
Table 2. Average Amount of Federal Assistance Per Disaster Based on Size of State, July
1995 - July 1999.........................................................................................................................18
Author Contact Information..........................................................................................................21
Under the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (P.L. 93-288) there
are two principal forms of Presidential action to authorize federal supplemental assistance.
Emergency declarations are made to protect property and public health and safety and to lessen or 1
avert the threat of a major disaster or catastrophe. Emergency declarations are often made when
a threat is recognized (such as the emergency declarations for Hurricane Katrina which were
made prior to landfall) and are intended to supplement and coordinate local and state efforts such
as evacuations and protection of public assets. In contrast, a major disaster declaration is made as
a result of the disaster or catastrophic event and constitutes a broader authority that helps states
and local communities, as well as families and individuals, recover from the damage caused by 2
Federal disaster assistance has served as the impetus for many supplemental appropriations bills
over the last several decades, and has accounted for presidential declarations in every state and 3
territory. The supplemental funds are placed in the Disaster Relief Fund (DRF) which is a “no-
year” fund managed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and used only for
spending related to presidentially-declared disasters.
Major disasters can be a dominant story in the mass media that captures attention both for the
devastation that results as well as the potential help that is expected. As one observer noted:
Disaster assistance is an almost perfect political currency. It serves humanitarian purposes
that only the cynical academic could question. It is largely funded out of supplemental
appropriations and thus does not officially add to the budget deficit. It promotes the local 4
economy of the area where the building process occurs.
While disaster assistance may be good “political currency,” a disaster declaration is generally the
result of a tragic and devastating incident that disrupts (and sometimes takes) the lives of
hundreds or thousands of families and individuals and the communities and states where they
reside. The long-term economic and environmental impact of a disaster can be severe. The
assistance offered from federal and private sources may or may not be commensurate with the
damage inflicted by a natural or man-made event. Following a disaster, years of rebuilding and
recovery work may lie ahead for communities and states. It is the declaration process that sets the
federal recovery help in motion.
The trigger for federal disaster assistance is contained in a relatively short statutory provision.
P.L. 93-288 (the Stafford Act) includes one brief section that establishes the legal requirements
for a major disaster declaration:
1 42 U.S.C. § 5122.
3 For more information on disaster supplementals, see CRS Report RL33226, Emergency Supplemental Appropriations
Legislation for Disaster Assistance: Summary Data, by Justin Murray and Bruce R. Lindsay. For a map of disaster
declarations, see http://www.bakerprojects.com.fema/Maps/CONUS.pdf.
4 Rutherford H. Platt, Disasters and Democracy: The Politics of Extreme Natural Events, (Washington, DC: Island
Press, 1999), p. 66.
Section 401. Procedures for Declaration. All requests for a declaration by the President that a
major disaster exists shall be made by the Governor of the affected state. Such a request shall
be based on a finding that the disaster is of such severity and magnitude that effective
response is beyond the capabilities of the state and the affected local governments and that
the federal assistance is necessary. As a part of such request, and as a prerequisite to major
disaster assistance under this Act, the Governor shall take appropriate response action under
state law and direct execution of the state’s emergency plan. The Governor shall furnish
information on the nature and amount of State and local resources which have been or will
be committed to alleviating the results of the disaster and shall certify that, for the current
disaster, state and local government obligations and expenditures (of which state
commitments must be a significant proportion) will comply with all applicable cost-sharing
requirements of this Act. Based on the request of a Governor under this section, the President 5
may declare under this Act that a major disaster or emergency exists.
The process for an emergency declaration is also contained in the Stafford Act. In part it is similar
to a major disaster declaration in finding and process, but the actual authorities are limited. In
addition, section (b) provides for a special authority for the President to exercise his discretion for
events that have a distinctly federal character:
Sec. 5191. Procedure for declaration. (a) Request and declaration All requests for a
declaration by the President that an emergency exists shall be made by the Governor of the
affected State. Such a request shall be based on a finding that the situation is of such severity
and magnitude that effective response is beyond the capabilities of the State and the affected
local governments and that Federal assistance is necessary. As a part of such request, and as
a prerequisite to emergency assistance under this chapter, the Governor shall take appropriate
action under State law and direct execution of the State’s emergency plan. The Governor
shall furnish information describing the State and local efforts and resources which have
been or will be used to alleviate the emergency, and will define the type and extent of
Federal aid required. Based upon such Governor’s request, the President may declare that an
emergency exists. (b) Certain emergencies involving Federal primary responsibility. The
President may exercise any authority vested in him by section 5192 of this title or section
5193 of this title with respect to an emergency when he determines that an emergency exists
for which the primary responsibility for response rests with the United States because the
emergency involves a subject area for which, under the Constitution or laws of the United
States, the United States and authority. In determining whether or not such an emergency
exists, the President shall consult the Governor of any affected State, if practicable. The 6
President’s determination may be made without regard to subsection (a) of this section.
The declaration process is elaborated upon in regulations, specifically in Subpart B of Part 206
(44 CFR). While these regulations have been adjusted through the regulatory process during the
past three decades, since 1974 the procedures have undergone little significant change. The
process itself is representative of the historical progression of federal disaster relief from being of
an episodic nature to the current commonplace disaster declaration, now occurring on a weekly
basis. The context in which disaster relief has grown has been in keeping with the growth of
government and its concerns.
Federal disaster relief has a long history in the U.S. dating back to the last years of the
eighteenth century and arguably provided much of the political genesis for the New Deal
social welfare programs (Landis 1999; Landis 1998; Moss 1999). As Michele Landis argues,
5 42 U.S.C. § 5170.
6 42 U.S.C. § 5191.
social and political construction of claimants for relief as helpless victims of external forces
beyond their control (“Acts of God”) have exerted an enduring influence on American
political discourse, which has manifested itself in heavy reliance on prior political precedents 7
and analogies in constructing responses to current disasters.
Information contained in the Preliminary Damage Assessments (PDAs) and summaries prepared
by FEMA regional offices that accompany gubernatorial requests were long considered “pre-
decisional and deliberative information” by the executive branch because they are part of the
package that is developed and sent to the White House for the President’s review and ultimate
decision. These materials have generally not been available under the Freedom of Information 8
Act process. However, during 2008, FEMA began to list on its website the results of the PDAs.
While the summaries of FEMA recommendations are still not available, the agreed upon figures 9
from the PDAs are now available to the public for review.
Policy makers have found it difficult to achieve equity in the treatment of disparate natural
disaster events. The events can vary widely in their type, scope, duration, and impact. Perhaps the
greatest variables are the states they affect. Each state has a different topography, a different
history, and different capacities to respond and recover based on their own authorities, resources,
and choices in what they will do following a disaster. Given those variations, it is a daunting task
to construct a uniform process that can account for the range of natural and governmental
circumstances that are a part of the nation’s potential disaster landscape.
The question of how the federal disaster declaration process should work has come to the
attention of Congress from time to time. Congress has requested reports from its investigative
arms and investigated the process in panels that have considered aspects of the disaster relief 10
process. Various administrations have also considered the process and FEMA’s role in it.
In 1981, and again in 2001, GAO issued reports on the declaration process that questioned the
quality and consistency of FEMA’s assessment criteria as well as the agency’s ability to produce
valid recommendations to the President on a Governor’s request for supplemental aid. As the
most recent report (2001) concluded:
These criteria are not necessarily indicative of a state’s ability to pay for the damage because
they do not consider the substantial differences in states’ financial capacities to respond
7 Michael J. Trebilcock and Ronald J. Daniels, “Rationales and Instruments for Government Intervention in Natural
Disasters” in Ronald J. Daniels, Donald F. Kettl, and Howard Kunreuther, eds., On Risk and Disaster: Lessons from
Hurricane Katrina, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006), p. 104. For additional discussion of the
evolution of emergency management see Claire B. Rubin, ed. Emergency Management: The American Experience
1900-2005 (Fairfax, VA: Public Entity Risk Institute, 2007).
8 U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Annual Report of FOIA Activity
for FY2000, II. C., at http://www.fema.gov/doc/help/foiareportfy00.doc.
9 U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Federal Emergency Managment Agency, Preliminary Damage Assessment
Reports, at [http://www.fema.gov/rebuild/recover/pda-reports.shtm].
10 Ibid.; and Platt, p. 266.
when disasters occur. As a result, federal funds may be provided for some disasters when 11
they are not needed – a result that would be inconsistent with the Stafford Act’s intent.
Congressional interest in the declaration process derived, in part, from the increased cost in
emergency spending—a recurring subject for the appropriations committees when considering
supplemental spending legislation. One review of disaster funding, particularly supplemental
appropriations, found that the great majority of Disaster Relief Fund spending is related to the
large, catastrophic events that meet the criteria established in the Stafford Act. These
supplementals have been “driven” by the urgency of large natural disasters. As one witness
explained in congressional testimony:
Since funds provided in annual appropriations measures may be used to cover the federal
costs of less catastrophic major disasters, Congress has focused critical attention on “must
pass” legislation that would replenish the Disaster Relief Fund for the worst and most costly 12
A review of data for a seven-year period from 1988 to 1995 reveals that large expenditures, as 13
funded by supplemental bills, relate to declarations issued for the largest events. During this
time period, disaster declarations were made for Hurricane Hugo, the Loma Prieta earthquake,
Hurricane Andrew, the Midwest floods of 1993, and the Northridge earthquake. However, these
were not the only events deemed worthy of presidential action and of cost to the federal treasury.
As summarized by one author:
But like the tail of a comet, over 200 other declarations accounted for one quarter of such
outlays, many of them of relatively minute cost and extent. While of lesser impact on the
national treasury, such “low end” declarations have become, to some observers, new sources
of federal spending at the local level, long referred to in other contexts as “pork barrel 14
During early 2001, the term “entitlement” was beginning to be used in describing federal disaster
spending by the new Bush Administration. Underlining this thinking in his first appearance before
the Senate Appropriations Committee, FEMA Director Joe M. Allbaugh explained:
FEMA is looking at ways to develop a meaningful and objective criteria for disaster
declarations that can be applied consistently. These criteria will not preclude the President’s
discretion but will help states better understand when they can reasonably turn to the federal
government for assistance and when it would be more appropriate for the state to handle the 15
11 U.S. Government Accountability Office, Disaster Assistance: Improvements Needed in Disaster Declaration
Criteria and Eligibility Assurance Procedures, GAO-01-837, August, 2001, p. 2.
12 U.S. Congress, House Committee on the Budget, Budgetary Treatment of Emergencies, p. 68, 105th Congress, 2nd.
Sess., June 23, 1998 (Washington: GPO, 1998).
13 For more information, see CRS Report RL33053, Federal Stafford Act Disaster Assistance: Presidential
Declarations, Eligible Activities, and Funding, by Keith Bea.
14 Ibid.; and Platt, p. 10.
15 U.S. Congress, Senate Committee on Appropriations, Subcommittee on VA, HUD and Independent Agencies,
Departments of Veterans Affairs and Housing and Urban Development and Independent Agencies Appropriations for thst
Fiscal Year 2002, 107 Congress, 1 sess., p. 252, at http://www.access.gpo.gov/congress/senate.
During the 110th Congress, attention was given to the disaster declaration process and what states
and local governments can reasonably expect from that process. During the early spring of 2007,
there were tornadoes that had an impact on Arkansas, Alabama and Georgia. The latter two states
received disaster declarations while the damage in Arkansas was deemed insufficient to warrant
federal assistance. Following these actions, Chairman Bennie Thompson of the House Homeland
Security Committee scheduled a hearing to review FEMA’s procedures. Representative
Thompson set the context as follows:
As Members representing real communities back home, we want to understand just how
FEMA makes determinations regarding what is a disaster deserving of attention and when
folks have to fend for themselves. Quite simply, we must have a serious discussion on what
our expectations are of our federal government and what should remain a state and local 16
In order to examine the process and the financial projections of disaster spending in particular,
Congress mandated in P.L. 110-28 that GAO study how FEMA develops its estimates for 17
supplemental funding that may be needed. Report language detailed these instructions for the
The Committee continues to be concerned with FEMA’s ability to manage resources in a
manner that maximizes its ability to effectively and efficiently deal with disasters. One
aspect of particular concern is how FEMA makes projections of funding needed in response
to any given disaster or to meet future disasters. A recent Government Accountability Office
(GAO) report raised concerns about FEMA’s ability to manage its day-to-day resources and
the lack of information on how FEMA’s resources are aligned with its operations. As a
follow-up to this report, the Committee requests that within six months of enactment GAO
review how FEMA develops its estimates of the funds needed to respond to any given
disaster. Such review should include how FEMA makes initial estimates, how FEMA refines
those estimates within the first few months of a disaster, and how closely FEMA’s estimates
predict actual costs. The review should also include additional analysis and
recommendations regarding FEMA’s ability to manage disaster-related resources in a 18
manner that maximizes effective execution of its mission.
The study parameters mandated by Congress are broader than the declaration process, placing its
emphasis on ongoing FEMA spending, including the refinement and revision of early estimates as
well as the general management of spending projections for the Disaster Relief Fund (DRF). But
it recognizes the importance of the initial estimates in decision-making and that the declaration
process represents the fundamental decision to both establish federal participation following a
disaster and provides the initial estimated amount of resources needed that informs that decision.
GAO’s eventual report in response to this request suggested that FEMA’s estimates for disaster
costs have improved but could use additional refinement, for example
16 Opening Statement of Rep. Bennie Thompson, in U.S. Congress, House Committee on Homeland Security, Disaster
Declarations, Where is FEMA in a Time of Need?, 110th Congress, 1st. sess., March 15, 2007.
17 P.L. 110-28, 121 Stat. 155.
18 U.S. Congress, House Committee on Appropriations, Making Emergency Supplemental Appropriations for the Fiscal
Year ending September 30, 2007 and other purposes, report to accompany H.R. 1591, 110th Cong., 1st sess., March 20,
2007, H.Rept. 110-60, p. 211.
some of the factors that can lead to changes in FEMA’s cost estimates are beyond its control,
such as the discovery of hidden damage. Others are not, such as its management of mission
assignments. Sensitivity analyses to identify the marginal effect of key cost drivers could
provide FEMA a way to isolate and mitigate the effect of these factors on its early estimates.
To better predict applicant costs for the Individual Assistance program, FEMA could 19
substitute or add more geographically specific indicators for its national average.
There have been several proposals to impose more stringent regulations on the declaration
process in an attempt to more precisely assess disaster impacts, calculate eligible damage, and
incorporate some measure of suffering and loss. Differing perceptions of the declaration process
resulted in different reactions to these proposed reforms.
The history of the disaster declaration process is rife with reform efforts that were perceived by
some not as reform but as punitive measures directed at certain constituencies. Some of those
differing perceptions were held by those closest to the event at the local level that had
experienced a disaster. A different perception was also often held by governors that wanted to
protect their option to request federal help. These perceptions were also shared, in some
instances, by Members of Congress representing affected areas. All elected officials argued, in
various forms, that reform should not impede the delivery of needed federal aid.
One example, now in law, of the desire to reform but not obstruct the declaration process is in the
Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of October of 2006. That statute created a new 20
position at FEMA: the Small State and Rural Advocate. One of the principal duties of the
advocate is to ensure that the needs of smaller states and rural communities will be “met in the
declaration process;” the advocate is also directed to “help small states prepare declaration 21
requests, among other duties.”
Another example was FEMA’s response to recommendations from GAO’s 1981 report. FEMA
drafted regulations in 1986 that would be more certain in their delineation of state requirements
prior to a declaration, reduce overall federal contributions, and install a formula to determine
whether a state would receive a presidential disaster declaration for repairs to state and local
infrastructure (known as “public assistance” in the Stafford Act). As the congressional report on
the initiative summarized the FEMA draft:
The proposal would have limited the number of future presidential declarations by
establishing a “state deductible” based on a per capita minimum dollar amount adjusted by
the ratio of the state/local price index to the national index. Of 111declarations issued in
prior years, 61 would have been ineligible for any public assistance. FEMA also proposed to
decrease the federal share for disaster costs from 75 percent to 50 percent and to exclude aid 22
to special districts.
19 Government Accountability Office, FEMA Disaster Cost Estimates, Feb. 2008, p. 4.
20 P.L. 109-295, 689g, 120 Stat. 1453.
21 For more information see CRS Report RL33729, Federal Emergency Management Policy Changes After Hurricane
Katrina: A Summary of Statutory Provisions, coordinated by Keith Bea.
22 U.S. Congress, House Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight, The Federal Emergency Management
Agency’s Proposed Disaster Relief Regulations, 100th Cong., 1st sess. (Washington: GPO, 1987), pp. 3-5.
The FEMA proposal of 20 years ago addressed some problems identified by students and critics
of the declaration process. However, some Members of Congress viewed this proposal as a means
of removing the power of discretion from elected leadership. Rather than apply the empirical
solution suggested by FEMA to perceived problems in the declaration process, Congress instead
legislated a provision to explicitly forbid the primacy of any “arithmetic formula.” In place of
agreeing to the regulatory changes in the formula proposed by FEMA and the Administration,
Congress added the following section to the Stafford Act:
Limitation on the Use of Sliding Scales. Section 320. No geographic area shall be precluded
from receiving assistance under this Act solely by virtue of an arithmetic formula or sliding 23
scale based on income or population.
While enactment of this legislation halted FEMA’s efforts, the issue did not disappear. As
discussed below, FEMA has since adopted regulations that use, but not “solely”, arithmetic
formulae in determining need for assistance.
The declaration process contains many factors for consideration and, for all but the most
catastrophic events, the process moves at a deliberate speed accumulating information from
several sources. While the process is informed by that information and its relationship to potential
assistance programs, the information that is gathered at the state and local level does not preclude
the exercise of judgement by the Governor or the President.
The Stafford Act stipulates several procedural actions a governor must take prior to requesting
federal disaster assistance (including the execution within the state of the state emergency plan
and an agreement to accept cost-share provisions and related information-sharing). Still, the
process leaves broad discretion with the governor if he or she determines that a situation is
“beyond the capabilities of the state.” The concession that a state can no longer respond on its
own is difficult to quantify. It is the governor who makes that assessment, based on his or her
knowledge of state resources and capabilities.
Actions by a governor are a driving constant in this process. Both declarations of major disaster
and declarations of emergency must be triggered by a request to the President from the Governor 24
of the affected state. The President cannot issue either an emergency or a major disaster
declaration without a gubernatorial request. The only exception to this rule is the authority given
to the President to declare an emergency when “he determines that an emergency exists for which
the primary responsibility for response rests with the United States because the emergency
involves a subject area for which, under the Constitution or laws of the United States, the United 25
States can exercise exclusive or preeminent responsibility and authority.”
23 42 U.S.C. 5163.
24 For more information, see CRS Report RL33090, Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act:
Legal Requirements for Federal and State Roles in Declarations of an Emergency or a Major Disaster, by Elizabeth B.
25 42 U.S.C. §5191.
The importance of governors in the process is not lost on, nor would it likely be diminished by,
Presidents who formerly served in that position. Over the last three decades of Stafford Act
implementation, four of the presidents during this period were former governors who had worked 26
through the disaster declaration process from both the state and the federal level.
Having that experience may have left the Presidents, and their staffs and appointees, with an
appreciation of the discretionary authority inherent in the process. While there are some
established standards in the law, the factors that are to be weighed in considering the impact of a
disaster on the need for assistance for families and individuals are general considerations that
underscore the judgment required to reach a decision. As one observer noted of the decision for
general, flexible considerations:
In other words, Congress likes to keep the process imprecise, even if benefits occasionally go
to the undeserving. The absence of objective criteria preserves wide political discretion to the 27
Congress also has among its number former governor’s who have exercised this discretion at the
state level. Still, despite the interest some may have in keeping “the process imprecise,” some
Members of Congress express disappointment at times with the exercise of the discretion and the
general nature of the considerations. As noted previously in this report, that disappointment has
been reflected in hearings that have focused on how the disaster declaration process works in
In the declaration process, FEMA develops a recommendation that is sent to the White House for
action. However, as implied, it is a recommendation from FEMA and the Department of
Homeland Security (DHS). The final action, as defined in the regulations of the process, is a 28
“Presidential determination.” Just as the governor retains the discretion to request federal
assistance regardless of thresholds or indicators, the President retains the discretion to make a
decision that may be counter to recommendations he receives.
Although not explicitly mentioned in the Stafford Act, Preliminary Damage Assessments (PDAs)
are a crucial part of the process of determining if an event may be declared a major disaster by the
president. The minimal discussion of PDAs in the public record stands in inverse proportion to
their impact on disaster decisions and subsequent expenditures from the Disaster Relief Fund.
When a PDA is conducted after an event it is the “mechanism used to determine the impact and
magnitude of damage and the resulting unmet needs of individuals, businesses, the public sector, 29
and the community as a whole.” The most “preliminary” part of a PDA may be an abbreviated
one completed only by the state to determine if the situation merits development of a complete
PDA with federal participation. Based on their previous experience, states may determine that the
26 President Carter (Georgia), President Reagan (California), President Clinton (Arkansas), and President George W.
27 Ibid.; and Platt, p. 20.
28 CFR 44 § 206.38.
29 CFR 44 § 206.33.
event will not reach the level where a federal disaster declaration is likely. However, despite
findings that federal aid may not be needed, there may be political considerations that could lead
to a gubernatorial request. As one author points out in his study of the process:
Governors also feel the heat of media coverage of incidents in their states, and they too
appreciate the importance of exhibiting political responsiveness. Governors also appreciate
that their future political fortunes may be influenced by how they handle their disaster and
emergency incidents. As a consequence, the hypothesis assumes that governors are the
pivotal and decisive players in securing presidential disaster declarations and that they have a 30
tendency to request declarations for even marginal events.
While media and political pressure may have some influence on the outcome of some requests,
governors may exercise caution since they are reluctant to be turned down when requesting aid. A
denial of their request could be perceived by some to reflect adversely on their decision-making
skills and judgment under pressure. Unlike the procedures of the federal process, a governor’s
decision to request a declaration is a public and often newsworthy action.
Regardless of any question regarding motivation, the governor’s first decision is whether the
incident is severe enough to assemble a traditional PDA team to survey the damaged area. The
traditional PDA team includes a state official, representatives from the appropriate FEMA
regional office, a local official familiar with the area and, in some instances, representatives from
the American Red Cross and/or the Small Business Administration. The FEMA representatives
have the responsibility of briefing the team on the factors to be considered, the information that
will be helpful in the assessment and how the information should be reported. One significant
improvement in this process is that the regulations now require that the participants reconcile any 31
differences in their findings.
Another factor is the quality of the PDA team and its findings. PDAs are ordered up quickly after
an event. FEMA’s 10 regional offices are often engaged in multiple disasters and have to rely on 32
temporary employees (albeit, usually experienced ones) to staff the PDA team. Also, given the
variables among regions in interpreting policy and guidance, consistency of approach may also be
a question. This became a significant issue during the hurricane season of 2004 in Florida, where 33
questions were raised regarding the designations of some counties.
When working openly and with federal and state cooperation, the PDA can be an effective and
inclusive process. As Washington State emergency management director Jim Mullen, and FEMA
Region X Director Susan Reinertson, explained the process for a survey of flood damage in
November of 2006:
“Joint PDA teams will visit and inspect damaged areas, document damage and talk, as
needed, with homeowners and local officials,” said Mullen. “It’s a partnership effort
30 Richard Sylves, Quick Response Report #86: The Politics and Administration of Presidential Disaster Declarations:
The California Floods of Winter 1995, at http://www.colorado.edu/hazards/research/qr/qr86.html.
31 44 CFR §206.33(c).
32 FEMA has 10 regional offices: Region 1 (Boston, MA), Region 2 (New York, NY), Region 3 (Philadelphia, PA),
Region 4 (Atlanta, GA), Region 5 (Chicago, IL), Region 6 (Denton, TX), Region 7 (Kansas City, MO), Region 8
(Denver, CO), Region 9 (Oakland, CA), and Region 10 (Bothell, WA).
33 Sally Kestin and Megan O’Matz, “FEMA ruled on disaster before verifying Dade damage,” South Florida Sun-
Sentinel, at http://www.sun-sentinel.com/news/sfl-fema15may15,0,6848867.story?coll=sfla-news-utilities.
designed to provide a clear picture of the extent and locations of damage in counties that
have reported the most substantial damage to primary homes andbusinesses.
“The PDA teams look at the total scope of damage to establish if recovery is beyond the
capabilities and resources of the state and local governments. The PDA doesn’t determine
the total cost of recovery, nor does it guarantee a presidential declaration for individual 34
assistance,” said FEMA Regional Director Susan Reinertson.
PDA teams often face challenges in the collection of data. Some information may be observable
in a survey of the area, such as the number of bridges damaged or the number of culverts washed
out. But other necessary information, such as the percentage of elderly residents in an area, or the
amount of insurance coverage for all homeowners or renters may be more difficult to obtain. Also
the geographic span of the damage can create complications as the PDA team struggles to cover
all of the affected area in a limited time. Further complications may then ensue based on how
much of the area that the PDA teams have visited (generally counties) are included in the
While PDAs are the usual way damages are assessed, there are exceptions to this rule. Some
incidents are so massive in their scale and impact that the actual declaration is not in doubt. This
would include events such as Hurricanes Andrew and Katrina, the Loma Prieta and Northridge
earthquakes, the Mount St. Helens volcanic eruption, and the September 11 terrorist attacks. In
these instances, the decision is not whether a declaration will be made, but how broad the
coverage will be, both geographic and programmatic. In such cases the President, in accordance
with the regulations, can waive the PDA requirement. But as the regulations note, a PDA may still 35
be needed “to determine unmet needs for managerial response purposes.” This means the PDA
helps to identify a specific, potential need for certain programs, such as crisis counseling or
disaster unemployment assistance during the disaster recovery period. It is this identification of
discrete need that helps the Governor decide on which assistance programs will be requested.
The PDA is a “bottom up” process as information gradually rises up for decision-makers to
consider. Multiple pressure points, including affected citizens, elected officials, and professionals
in various fields, may all urge PDA team members to reach certain conclusions. As one author
The president, motivated by the need to appear highly politically responsive, solicits and
encourages a gubernatorial request for a presidential disaster declaration. Publicity is a factor
in that CNN and other news organizations help to promote nationally what would otherwise
be a local incident addressed by subnational authorities. The president may also be 36
influenced by the electoral importance of the state that experiences the incident.
It is difficult to overstate the importance of the media context as noted above. Depending on the
news of the day, the disaster event in question may be the biggest national story and thus create
momentum for action that is difficult to assuage with explanations of traditional administrative
34 U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Federal Emergency Management Agency, “Joint State-Federal Preliminary
Damage Assessment Teams Visit Flood-Damaged Communities,” Release Number R10-06-047, November 13, 2006,
35 44 CFR 206.33(d).
36 Ibid.; and Sylves, p. 5.
Public Assistance (PA) refers to various categories of assistance to state and local governments
and non-profit organizations. Principally, PA covers the repairs or replacement of infrastructure
(roads, bridges, public buildings, etc.) but also includes debris removal and emergency protective
measures which cover additional costs for local public safety groups incurred by their actions in 37
responding to the disaster. In assessing the degree of PA damage, FEMA considers six general
• Estimated cost of the assistance
• Localized impacts
• Insurance coverage
• Hazard mitigation
• Recent multiple disasters
• Programs of other federal assistance.
Although all of these factors are considered, the estimated cost of the assistance is a key
component and may be “more equal” than other factors since it contains a threshold figure. What
is especially noteworthy about the cost estimates is that they could be interpreted as an example
of the “arithmetic formula” that was precluded from use in Section 320 of the Stafford Act.
However, that section does state that a formula cannot be “solely” determinative of the fate of a
Governor’s request. Use of the other factors listed arguably justify FEMA’s consideration of the
threshold figure of $1 million in PA damage—the first number FEMA expects to see in a request
that includes PA as an area of needed assistance. In addition FEMA also considers a state-wide 38
threshold of $1.22 per capita before it will approve a request for PA help.
Depending on the state’s population, the per capita threshold may be difficult to reach. For 39
example, the 2000 Census estimated California’s population at just under 34 million people.
Applying the $1.22 per capita figure, it would require eligible PA damage in California to be
close to $41.5 million. California is a large state with a budget and tax base commensurate with
its size. Expecting a large state to be able to respond on its own is equating such help, and such 40
amounts, to be within “the capabilities of the state.... ”
37 U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Presidential Declarations: What
Does This Mean for Me?, at http://www.fema.gov/media/archives/2007/010807b.shtm.
38 U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Federal Emergency Management Agency, “Notice of Adjustment of
Statewide Per Capita Impact Indicator,” 71 Federal Register, 59514, October 10, 2006.
39 U.S. Census Bureau, State & County Quick Facts, at http://quickfacts.census.gov/gfd/states/06000.html.
40 42 U.S.C. §5170.
Compare that level of eligible damage for California ($41.5 million) with Nevada, a small 41
population state according to FEMA regulations. For Nevada, with a population of just under 2
million people according to the 2000 Census, eligible PA damage of about $2.4 million would
make the state potentially eligible for supplemental federal assistance.
There are obvious differences in the populations of these two states; however both have
substantial industries and are growing areas. They are bordering states that are both subject to the 42
threat of earthquake damage. Different measurements have been suggested to try to more
accurately capture a state’s capacity to respond to disaster events. Some of these measurements
are discussed in the Congressional Considerations section of this report.
The next factor used by FEMA to consider a declaration that may include PA help focuses on
localized impacts. FEMA generally looks for a minimum of $3.05 per capita in infrastructure 43
damage in a county before designating it for PA funding. While such a per capita amount would
likely ensure that the local entity (almost always a county) would be included in the list of
jurisdictions designated for PA assistance should a declaration be issued, high local levels of
damage per capita would not supersede a finding that damages state-wide fell below the state-
wide threshold amount. However, knowledge of a very large localized impact could weigh on the
President’s discretion and raise the importance of the localized impact factor.
Insurance coverage also is considered in assessing damage. Officials preparing PA estimates
deduct the amount of insurance that should have been held by units of governments and non-
profit organizations from the total eligible damage amount. However, this is a complicated
assessment with several caveats. A considerable number of states and local governments “self-
insure” their investments against some types of disasters and may argue that they would have 44
total liability absent a federal disaster declaration. Also, in the event of some disasters
(earthquakes being a prime example), the state insurance commissioner must certify that hazard
insurance is both available and affordable. If it is not available, deducting an amount of coverage 45
not realistically available would not be a practical consideration.
In the case of a flood event, it is much simpler for FEMA to access information available on
whether flood insurance was available, given that FEMA administers the National Flood
Insurance Program (NFIP) and there are program staff in each FEMA region who monitor NFIP
participation. This knowledge of flood insurance availability and costs makes it a simpler process
41 44 CFR § 206.48.
42 U.S. Geological Survey, Earthquake Hazards Program, “Earthquake Density Maps for the United States”, at
43 U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Federal Emergency Management Agency, “Notice of Adjustment of
Countywide Per Capita Impact Indicator,” 71 Federal Register, 59513, October 10, 2006.
44 For information on public insurance coverage, see “Cost of Risk Survey” conducted by the Public Entity Risk
Institute (PERI) at http://www.riskinstitute.org.
45 44 CFR §206.253.
for FEMA to deduct the amount of flood insurance that should have been in place from the total 46
potential award for a public structure.
Hazard mitigation presents a challenging and different type of consideration for Public Assistance
disaster declaration requests. If the requesting state can prove that their per capita amount of
infrastructure damage falls short due to mitigation measures that lessened the disaster’s impact,
FEMA will consider that favorably in its recommendation to the President. Calculations of
savings would be dependant on cost-benefit analysis and other related estimates of damages that
were avoided. This factor is intended to encourage mitigation projects by states to lessen the risks
of future natural disasters. Some might consider this practice to be one where “a good deed
should go unpunished.” However, another factor to be considered is that the mitigation work that
is credited to the state may, in fact, have been principally financed (up to 75% of the costs) with
previous FEMA disaster assistance funding through the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program 47
Recent multiple disasters is the factor FEMA considers when a state has been repeatedly hit by
disaster events (either presidential declarations or events within the state that were not declared)
within the previous twelve months. FEMA evaluates the amount of funds that the state has
committed to these recent events and their impact on the state and its residents. For example, a
request from a state that has responded on it own to a series of tornadoes may receive a more
favorable consideration, even if the catalyst for the request was arguably not as destructive as
others. This factor was used recently in FEMA’s assessment of the multiple hurricanes that struck
Florida during the 2004 hurricane season.
When FEMA is reviewing a governor’s request it is also considering whether other federal
programs are available. One example might be if a large amount of the reported damage occurred
to Federal-aid-system roads. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) is a more appropriate
agency to handle such an event, and administers programs that address this specific type of 48
damage. The bridge collapse in Minnesota is a dramatic example of this type of event that
would warrant significant, non-FEMA, federal aid. Similarly, other federal programs may be
more responsive to certain types of natural events and the problems they create. For example,
oceanic bacteria could cause harmful failures for the fishing and hatcheries industry. Should such
outbreaks occur, the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Act (P.L. 94-265) authorizes programs under
the Commerce Department that would have more appropriate forms of emergency assistance for
commercial fishermen than FEMA through the Stafford Act. Also, while drought is a type of
46 44 CFR §206.252.
47 42 U.S.C. § 5170c.
48 For more information, see CRS Report RS22268, Repairing and Reconstructing Disaster-Damaged Roads and
Bridges: The Role of Federal-Aid Highway Assistance, by Robert S. Kirk.
disaster that could result in a major disaster, such catastrophes usually result in program 49
assistance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture rather than presidential declarations.
In summary, all of these factors are used by FEMA to determine whether a major disaster
declaration will be recommended and whether PA aid will be extended as a part of that potential
declaration. FEMA’s assistance to a homeowner who chooses not to purchase insurance is left
with help from FEMA that is capped at $28,200. The assistance to repair public infrastructure is
based on the amount of eligible damage caused by the disaster event. There is no cap and the
sums can be in the billions of dollars.
Individual Assistance (IA) includes various forms of help for families and individuals following a
disaster event. The assistance authorized by the Stafford Act can include housing assistance,
disaster unemployment assistance, crisis counseling and other programs intended to address the
needs of people. In seeking to assess the impact of a disaster on families and individuals, the
factors FEMA considers include:
• Concentration of damages
• Special populations
• Voluntary agency assistance
• Insurance coverage
• Average amount of individual assistance by state.
Concentration of damages looks at the density of the damage in individual communities. FEMA’s
regulations state that highly concentrated damages “generally indicate a greater need for federal 50
assistance than widespread and scattered damages throughout a state.” Concentrated damages
are far more visible and may be an indication of significant damage to infrastructure supporting
neighborhoods and communities, thereby increasing the needs of individuals and families.
However, the dispersion of damage is not necessarily an indication that individual and family
needs are non-existent. Damage in rural states, almost by definition, is far less concentrated and
could arguably be more difficult for a PDA team to view and assess. Congress has sought to
address this challenge through the creation of the Rural and Small State advocate position at 51
49 For more information, see CRS Report RS21212, Agricultural Disaster Assistance, by Ralph M. Chite.
50 44 CFR §206.48(b)(1).
51 P.L. 109-295, §689g, 120 Stat. 1453.
Trauma is defined in three ways in FEMA’s regulations: the loss of life and injuries, the
disruption of normal community functions, and emergency needs that could include an extended 52
loss of power or water.
Despite their prominence and importance to victims, families and communities, the loss of life
and injuries have relatively little bearing on a declaration decision, but they would greatly
influence media coverage that can influence the decision-making process.
An extreme amount of losses would be traumatic and considered in the evaluation of the
Governor’s request. But the actual help available from FEMA in response to such losses is
limited. The Other Needs Assistance (ONA) program, a part of the Individuals and Households 53
Program (IHP), may provide assistance for uninsured funeral expenses and medical help.
As noted, the extreme loss of life or many injuries will likely influence the amount of media
coverage for the event. As previously explained in the “Presidential and Gubernatorial
Discretion” section of this report, the media coverage can influence not merely the pace of the 54
decision, but the actual decision itself.
The other areas (disruption of functions and loss of utilities) in the trauma rubric can be a point of
dispute in declaration decisions. What constitutes a disruption of normal community functions?
Do road closures that result in the closing of schools equate to a disruption? Another
consideration is how long the disruption remains and how, or even if, federal help can alleviate
the disruption. Similarly, the emergency needs due to the loss of utilities are defined by the length
of time the power or water are not in service. Because characteristics of these factors are not
defined in regulations, discretionary judgments are significant aspects of the evaluation of IA
Special populations are considered by FEMA in assessing a request for individual assistance.
FEMA attempts to ascertain information about the demographics of an area affected by a disaster
event. Those demographics include the age and income of residents, the amount of home
ownership in an area, the affect on Native American tribal groups, and other related
considerations to be taken into account. The knowledge of the demographics within the affected
area gives FEMA added information to consider regarding trauma and community disruption.
Special populations are a factor in the consideration of a governor’s request, but the total number
of households affected that would be eligible for Stafford Act programs remains the prime
52 44 CFR §206.48(b)(2).
53 42 U.S.C. § 5174.
54 Richard Sylves, Quick Response Report #86: The Politics and Administration of Presidential Disaster Declarations:
The California Floods of Winter 1995, at http://www.colorado.edu/hazards/research/qr/qr86.html.
Voluntary agency assistance involves an evaluation of what the volunteer and charitable groups
and state and local governments have already done to assist disaster victims as well as the
potential help they can offer in the recovery period. FEMA also considers whether state or local 55
programs “can meet the needs of disaster victims.” This factor is among the most contentious in
the disaster declaration process due to the subjectivity of the assessment.
FEMA’s evaluation of local and state capabilities, and the capabilities of the local voluntary
community, may vary greatly among catastrophes. There is an expectation that the regional
office’s relationship and history with the state could provide some of this information. But a
cursory look at state programs available to “meet the needs of disaster victims” suggests that few
resources are comparable to federal help in intent or in scope. A National Emergency
Management Association (NEMA) survey of its members for state-funded disaster assistance
showed that relatively few states provide assistance beyond that authorized in the Stafford Act.
Table 1 summarizes data from that survey.
Table 1. Types of State-Funded Disaster Assistance
Assistance Provided Number of States with These Programs
Public Assistance Program 21
Individual Assistance Program 8
Unmet Need Program 5
Source: NEMA 2006 Biennial Report: Organizations & Funding for State Emergency Management & Homeland
Security (Lexington, KY: Council of State Governments) p. 17.
NEMA noted that the “other” category could include a range of programs or funds not necessarily
of direct aid to victims, including “local government loans, HAZMAT (hazardous materials) 56
funds, disaster unemployment insurance, and a governor’s contingency fund.” The report does
not define these programs any further, but the small numbers of programs directed at IA or unmet
needs suggests that FEMA officials evaluate this area carefully given the lack of information 57
regarding available resources for these programs and the extent of their coverage.
In the same vein, attempts to assess the capacity of local voluntary and charitable groups to
handle “unmet needs” caused by a disaster can be challenging and problematic. Part of the
challenge is discerning the assistance available from the non-profit, voluntary sector, and if that
aid meets the needs created by the disaster event. A problematic aspect of the assessment is
similar to the “good deeds” concept addressed in the “hazard mitigation” factor in PA. In that
instance, the criteria reward the mitigation work that communities and states had undertaken to
lessen the impact of a disaster. Similarly, a strong and efficient charitable sector at the local level
55 44 CFR §206.48 (b) (4).
56 National Emergency Management Association (NEMA) 2006 Biennial Report: Organizations & Funding for State
Emergency Management & Homeland Security, (Lexington, KY: Council of State Governments).
57 For more information on state assistance programs, refer to the following for summary information on state statutory
authorities: CRS Report RL32287, Emergency Management and Homeland Security Statutory Authorities in the States,
District of Columbia, and Insular Areas: A Summary, by Keith Bea, L. Cheryl Runyon, and Kae M. Warnock.
that is equipped and funded to address the remaining needs could result in a disaster not being
declared and federal supplemental funding not being made available.
Arguably, a community does not base all of its preparedness decisions on the potential of FEMA
funding in an extraordinary situation. However, it has been argued that some aspects of the
FEMA declaration process could be viewed as disincentives for a sound, local capacity to deliver
such assistance. One analyst believed that this problem underlines the need for clear criteria for
smaller disaster events:
Too low a threshold reinforces the perception that the federal government will always come
like the cavalry to rescue states and local governments from their improvident failure to
prepare for routine disasters. Lapses in preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation (to
cite the disaster management litany) should not be encouraged by a too readily available 58
bailout by the federal government and taxpayers.
In evaluating the capabilities of local organizations, FEMA seeks to determine the help that
actually exists, rather than assistance that might be expected to be in place.
As noted earlier in the PA section, insurance coverage is also an important consideration when
FEMA considers a request for Individual Assistance. This is in part derived from the general
prohibition in the statute of the duplication of benefits, as follows:
... each federal agency administering any program providing financial assistance to persons,
business concerns, or other entities suffering losses as a result of a major disaster or
emergency, shall assure that no such person, business concern or other entity will receive
such assistance with respect to any part of such loss as to which he has received financial 59
assistance under any other program or from insurance or any other source.
This provision does not necessarily result in delayed assistance. FEMA is able to provide help to
individuals and households that have disaster damages but are waiting on insurance or other
assistance for help. Those applicants can receive FEMA help as long as they agree to reimburse
FEMA when they receive their other assistance. If a disaster occurred where almost all of the
damaged dwellings were fully insured for the damage that was sustained, FEMA could conclude
that a disaster declaration by the President was not necessary. Among the types of disasters
FEMA frequently responds to, tornado disasters particularly reflect this challenge since tornado
coverage is a part of most homeowners insurance policies.
Since the NFIP is administered by FEMA, officials can quickly determine the status of flood
insurance in communities and the number of policies in place in the affected area. Additionally,
knowledge of the income of the area’s residents, as suggested in the special populations factor,
allows the agency to make some projections regarding the likelihood of insurance coverage,
particularly special hazard insurance such as flood or earthquake insurance, which are potentially
expensive additions to a homeowners policy. As one analyst has noted:
58 Ibid.; and Platt, p. 65.
59 42 U.S.C. §5155.
The decision not to buy insurance for earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and other natural
disasters isn’t always conscious: some homeowners don’t realize they’re not already
covered. But many others, faced with high premiums and policies with limited coverage, 60
gamble that they won’t need insurance help to rebuild after a disaster.
The last factor FEMA considers in assessing IA needs is the average amount of individual
assistance by state. FEMA has issued statistics on average losses but notes that the average
numbers used are not a threshold (see Table 2). The agency does suggest that the “following
averages may prove useful to states and voluntary agencies as they develop plans and programs to
meet the needs of disaster victims.” The inference is that the levels listed generally are what
would be expected in damage to dwellings.
The average numbers that follow are based on disasters that occurred between July of 1995 and
July of 1999; the data are ten years old and of questionable use today. The chart divides states into
three categories: small states (under 2 million in population), medium states (2 to 10 million in
population) and large states (over 10 million in population). The population amounts are based on
the 1990 Census.
Table 2. Average Amount of Federal Assistance Per Disaster Based on Size of State,
July 1995 - July 1999
Categories Small States Medium States Large States
<2 Million 2-10 Million >10 Million
Population Population Population
Avg. population (1990 Census Data) 1,000,057 4,713,548 15,552,791
Number of disaster housing applications approved 1,507 2,747 4,679
Number of homes est. major damage/destroyed 173 582 801
Dollar amount of housing assistance $2.8 million $4.6 million $9.5 million
Number of Individual and Family Grants (IFG) 495 1,377 2,071
approved (Now known as ONA)
Dollar amount of IFG assistance (now ONA) $1.1 million $2.9 million $4.6 million
Disaster housing/IFG (ONA) combined assistance $3.9 million $7.5 million $ 14.1 million
Source: 44 CFR §206.48(b) (6).
While FEMA’s regulations stress that these are not thresholds, they are considered by agency
officials in determining whether IA will be provided. Presumably states may consider that FEMA
help could be forthcoming if damage reaches the state indicator levels. However, since the
amounts have not been updated in ten years and are based on a 1990 census, it is difficult to
determine the degree to which these numbers are considered. Given Congress’ mandate in Section
320 of the Stafford Act, this cannot be an arithmetic formula that solely determines whether
assistance is provided. But the presentation of loss indicators may guide states when considering
whether to request assistance.
60 Liz Pulliam Weston, “Do You Really Need Disaster Insurance?,” MSN Money, at http://moneycentral.msn.com/
In addition to the issue of the data’s currency, a larger and more compelling question is whether
the numbers in the chart match up to the Preliminary Damage Assessments (PDAs) for those
events. Absent an existing review of detailed information in PDA forms, it is not possible to 61
determine the usefulness of the data in Table 2. Still, given the level of experience in this field
following literally thousands of disaster declarations over the last 30 years, it could be argued that
the numbers of eligible households assisted may be reflective of the estimated damage upon
which the decision for a disaster declaration was made.
When Congress considers the mandated GAO reports and other commentary on the declaration
process, there are some considerations that Members may wish to review when considering the
current declaration process.
One area of consideration is the composition of Preliminary Damage Assessment teams. Team
members are involved throughout the process and include local officials guiding the team, state
personnel who assist the Governor in requesting assistance, and FEMA staff who work on the
disaster if one is declared. While FEMA staff have the opportunity at several levels to refine the
information the team gathers on damages and to ask additional questions, the process could be
approached in other ways. Some FEMA staff have suggested the formation of several permanent
teams that would have PDAs as their prime job task without continuing involvement in particular
disasters. This could result in more consistent assessments with the bonus of added perspective of
team members with exposure to various disasters in many regions of the country. Establishing
independent and expert on-site groups to review a situation is a recommendation that the National
Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has been contemplating in their investigations of 62
The PDA is an important part of the declaration process. While it can be subject to challenge, it is
also the assessment closest to the event. Given its vital role in the process the PDA deserves close
attention to determine if these on-site assessments are accurately reflecting the character of an
event and the likely eligible damages following a disaster event.
As previously noted, the averages that appear in FEMA’s declaration process regulations for 63
Individual Assistance (IA) to states are derived from experiences from July 1995 to July 1999.
These figures could be updated based on FEMA’s more recent experience in delivering this type
61 This statement remains accurate. However, since FEMA has begun to list PDA information on its website, it should
be possible to begin to assess the efficacy of the factors employed to determine IA damage and declaration criteria.
62 For more information, see CRS Report RL33474, Reauthorization of the National Transportation Safety Board, by
63 44 CFR § 206.48.
While the averages are separated by state population size, there does not appear to be a threshold
number equivalent to the PA figure of $1 million in eligible damage. In the case of IA help, a
dollar figure may not be desirable; however numbers of families and households affected, or a
minimum number of homes with major damage, could potentially be a starting point in
establishing a base IA threshold for consideration of requests.
The current per capita indicator based on state population according to the U.S. Census is clear
but some observers believe it lacks precision. For example, the earlier discussion on PA indicators
pointed out the commonality between California and Nevada regarding earthquake risk as well as
the growth of the states. Their population sizes are very different but the per capita indicator alone
does not necessarily measure a state’s fiscal capacity.
The GAO report in 2001 noted that per capita personal income measures do not take into account
the taxable income a state may enjoy from businesses or corporations that may have considerable
taxable profits. GAO did suggest a different indicator:
We have previously reported that Total Taxable Resources (TTR), a measure developed by
the U.S. Department of Treasury, is a better measure of state funding capacity in that it
provides a more comprehensive measure of the resources that are potentially subject to state 64
FEMA’s response to this suggestion questioned whether the use of TTR would be in violation of 65
the legislative prohibition against arithmetic formulas. The TTR does have very specific
information and also tracks growth within a state. However, this appears to make it a more
accurate measurement. The degree of detail in the measurement would not necessarily make it the
“sole” determinant of disaster aid. It could remain an indicator and one among several factors to
be considered in the declaration process.
The disaster declaration process, though subject to inquiry, argument, hearings, studies and
recommendations, has changed very little over time. It remains a process that can be observed
and evaluated as it occurs in the area affected by the disaster, and grows opaque as it moves up
through layers of FEMA and DHS management to the White House. By making PDA information
available, FEMA has begun to lift the veil on the decisions that are made. Congress has
demonstrated an interest in this process and has sought to understand its limits and its
effectiveness. “From the Government Accountability Office in 1981 to Vice President Gore’s
National Performance Review in 1994,” one student of the process noted, “countless policy 66
critiques have called for more objective criteria for presidential disaster declarations.” But those
calls can be muted when a disaster occurs in a particular place that has particular importance to
actors in the process, whether in Congress or the executive branch.
64 U.S. Government Accountability Office, DISASTER ASSISTANCE: Improvement Needed in Disaster Declaration
Criteria and Eligibility Assurance Procedures, GAO-01-837, August 2001, p.11.
65 Ibid., p. 49.
66 Ibid.; and Platt, p. 285.
While criteria have been established to create a relatively uniform and knowable process, these
criteria may not be determinative of the most critical elements considered. An emphasis on
victims of unexpected natural disaster events will likely always have a compelling influence on
the disaster declaration process. But since disaster relief does have a political element, at many
levels, precedent arguably can have value in improving the declaration process so that it can be
applied broadly and fairly. But precedent can also be problematic when discussing events of very
different size and impact.
During the last Congress, attention was directed to the nature of the disaster declaration process.
Congress may choose to consider a broad review of the process that might include the
consistency of FEMA’s approach across the nation in making damage assessments, other potential
indicators of state capabilities and capacities, and the currency of the factors it employs to
evaluate those assessments of disaster damage and the state requests on which they are based.
Francis X. McCarthy
Analyst in Emergency Management Policy