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The Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act of 1988 (Stafford Act) governs how our country responds to disasters. While the Stafford Act provides an important and necessary foundation for coordinated national response to disasters, a number of shortcomings and deficiencies have been identified over the years. By understanding the Act’s pitfalls and gaps, donors can make strategic decisions in allocating private dollars toward disaster preparedness, response, and recovery.
Broken into seven titles, the Stafford Act establishes a federal process for declaring disasters, determining the appropriate level of response, and dividing up the costs among federal, state, and local governments. In addition to providing federal assistance programs to deal with economic losses resulting from disasters, the Act articulates the need for state and local governments to create comprehensive disaster preparedness plans and mechanisms to prepare for intergovernmental coordination during times of crisis.
The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina exposed organizational deficiencies of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and, as a result, the agency has been widely criticized for a slow and inadequate response. FEMA’s failures after Katrina largely reflect failures of the Stafford Act. Understanding the Act’s limitations can help funders make better decisions.
Limitation: The Act does categorize catastrophic events, such as major earthquakes or hurricanes, or 21st century threats, such as nuclear attacks or accidents. Without this distinction, there is no special response for catastrophes.
Limitation: Disaster declarations and resource—allocation decisions are made at the federal and state level, and therefore are not always based on the specific area affected. Money is also required to pass through a myriad of federal agencies. As a result, payments often do not reach the affected community for up to a year after the disaster.
Limitation: This level of assistance is sufficient for most disasters but not catastrophic events, such as Hurricane Katrina or the attacks on September 11, 2001.
Limitation: Providing funding for mitigation projects in communities without the underlying capacity to leverage these dollars does not help prevent future catastrophes.
The Stafford Act does not adequately address long—term recovery needs following a disaster. This is where private dollars become critically important. Donors can employ the following strategies to complement existing federal assistance programs:
In the years to come, the U.S. will certainly confront the devastation of additional natural disasters, and may well have to respond to man—made catastrophes like the 9/11 attacks. The donor community can play a vital role in disaster response not just by filling funding gaps, but also by advocating for Stafford Act reform that will put in place the remedies and safeguards required to confront the disasters of the future.