The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is the government agency charged with supporting U.S. citizens, residents and first responders “to ensure that as a nation we work together to build, sustain, and improve our capability to prepare for, protect against, respond to, recover from, and mitigate all hazards.”

Prior to a disaster, FEMA provides preparedness programs designed to mitigate or eliminate loss when disasters do occur. This includes hazard mitigation programs to support individuals or government to reduce dangers or eliminate long-term risk to people and property stemming from disasters. It also supports the National Flood Insurance Program to support homeowners and tenants who risk losing property after a flood.

In the wake of a disaster, FEMA plays a critical role in meeting the needs of affected populations in the United States. FEMA staff conducts damage assessments, supports local emergency management operations and establishes voluntary liaisons to support the faith, philanthropic and nonprofit communities. FEMA establishes PODs (Points of Distribution) in conjunction with the National Guard to distribute water and tarps. They also provide Disaster Recovery Centers (DRC) to enable people to access information and financial assistance.

In addition, FEMA coordinates the disaster-related work of other U.S. governmental agencies and departments. FEMA’s Emergency Support Functions (ESFs) provide a structure to oversee response in disasters. ESF 6, for example, includes “Mass Care, Emergency Assistance, Temporary Housing, and Human Services  – coordinates and provides life-sustaining resources, essential services, and statutory programs when the needs of disaster survivors exceed local, state, tribal, territorial, and insular area government capabilities.” Many nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) responding in the immediate aftermath of a disaster are supporting ESF 6 activities.

FEMA also provides three types of financial or programmatic grants to assist communities:

  1. Hazard Mitigation Assistance
  2. Public Assistance Program
  3. Individual Assistance Program

Hazard Mitigation Assistance (HMA)
There are three types of grants provided through the HMA – Pre-Disaster Mitigation, Flood Mitigation Assistance and Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP). The Hazard Mitigation Grant Program defines hazard mitigation measures as “any sustainable action taken to reduce or eliminate long-term risk to people and property from future disasters. The HMGP supports cost-effective post-disaster projects and is the longest running mitigation program among FEMA’s three grant programs. Studies have shown that every $1 spent equals $4 of future damages mitigated.”

Public Assistance Program
If FEMA declares that a disaster meets the minimum threshold for damages, they can provide assistance to individuals or government. FEMA’s Public Assistance (PA) program supports, “communities’ recovery from major disasters by providing them with grant assistance for debris removal, life-saving emergency protective measures, and restoring public infrastructure. Local governments, states, tribes, territories and certain private nonprofit organizations are eligible to apply. Public Assistance is FEMA’s largest grant program. Since 2017, FEMA gave over five billion dollars through PA grants to help communities clear debris and rebuild roads, schools, libraries, and other public facilities.” PA is provided in several areas:

Emergency Work

A) Debris Removal
B) Emergency Protective Measures

Permanent Work

C) Road Systems and Bridges
D) Water Control Facilities
E) Buildings, Contents and Equipment
F) Utilities
G) Parks, Recreational and Other Facilities

Categories A and B are the most common after a disaster.

Individual Assistance Program
FEMA also provides assistance through its Individual Assistance Program, primarily through its Individual and Household Program (IHP). Through the IHP, FEMA “provides financial assistance and direct services to eligible individuals and households who have uninsured or underinsured necessary expenses and serious needs. IHP Assistance is not a substitute for insurance and cannot compensate for all losses caused by a disaster; it is intended to meet basic needs and supplement disaster recovery efforts.”

IHP also includes housing assistance including the TSA (Temporary Shelter Assistance) program which supports individuals’ housing in motels after shelters close and before their home is ready. Other Needs Assistance (ONA) includes expenses related to healthcare, childcare, disabilities, loss of life, vehicle replacement and replacement of furniture or appliances. Individuals who do not qualify for a FEMA grant can access assistance through the U.S. Small Business Administration Disaster Assistance Program which provides loans to assist with repairs and losses for both homes and businesses.

In addition to the IHP, Individual Assistance includes Disaster Unemployment Assistance, Disaster Legal Services, Crisis Counseling Assistance and Training Programs and Disaster Case Management Program (DCMP).

Key Facts

  • FEMA is not that old, but disaster support is. FEMA was created by President Jimmy Carter on April 1, 1979 to bring together nearly two centuries of disaster recovery programming and financing that were in existence.
  • FEMA works only at the request of the state government or a federally-recognized Indian tribal government. The governor of an affected state or tribal chief executive must make a formal application for help, either for an emergency or major disaster.  Assistance may be requested for disaster relief for individuals, for the restoration of public systems and facilities or for matching mitigation funds to reduce the area’s future vulnerability.
  • FEMA does not cover the full financial impact of a disaster. Contrary to what many people believe, FEMA has a limit in its assistance and most people get relatively small amounts. The FEMA Max Grant during Hurricane Harvey in 2017 was $33,300; most people received $3,000 to 4,000 in assistance.
  • Inclusive planning is needed. Though disaster preparedness efforts are essential in mitigating damage, too often the focus is on the able-bodied, teaching them what to do to be “ready.” Assistance also must be given to nongovernmental agencies that work with marginalized populations to ensure, for example, those who would need portable oxygen in the case of an incident are identified and cared for, or the number of people in a certain area that might need public transportation is accurately known.

How to Help

Private dollars are more agile than public ones with disaster relief. As such, donors can complement FEMA efforts through the following strategies:

  • Support inclusive planning efforts. Offer grants, for example, for disaster-preparedness training and programs that specifically incorporate plans for vulnerable populations.
  • Build the capacity of intermediary agencies such as healthcare providers and food banks that already work with vulnerable populations. Shoring up their ability to meet needs before a disaster will help reduce exacerbation of those needs when disaster strikes.
  • Be a connector. Create opportunities for private and public representatives to form relationships to share resources, ideas, skills and capacities before a disaster hits.
  • Provide post-disaster expedited loans and grants for small businesses. Currently, federal loans to help small businesses recover from disasters are capped at $2 million.  That may not be enough — and it may take too long to arrive in order to be most effective in stimulating recovery.
  • Fund public awareness and other campaigns. Foster conversations at the community level about available services, limitations and preparedness to overcome distrust of government assistance.
  • Support the gap in funding between FEMA’s grant and people’s needs. This is particularly important for people who do not have home or flood insurance.

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(Photo: A FEMA Community Relations representative walks through a damaged neighborhood. Source: Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA)