The Stafford Act


The Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act of 1988 (Stafford Act) governs how the United States government 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.

Hurricane Katrina exposed organizational deficiencies of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and, as a result, the agency was widely criticized for a slow and inadequate response. Understanding the Act’s limitations is key to improvements for future disasters. As the Louisiana Family Recovery Corps stated in the wake of Katrina, “the rigidity of the Act  and its voluminous amendments has certainly served to handcuff those federal agents, officers and agencies working under its oversight.”

A more recent criticism after Hurricane Harvey in 2017 was that the Act only allows FEMA to provide “temporary housing,” which elevates short-term fixes instead of long-term solutions.

The Disaster Recovery Reform Act (DRRA) aims to improve the Stafford Act and reduce disaster risk including amending the Act to create a pre-disaster mitigation program that would not be subject to annual appropriations from Congress.

Another DRRA proposal would allow temporary FEMA personnel to become permanent employees after serving continuously for three years. This would allow the agency to grow the pool of qualified potential employees.

Other DRRA plans would alter how FEMA interacts with state and local governments. One such change would allow the agency, in coordination with the U.S. Department of Transportation, to produce guidance for state and local governments to identify evacuation routes. Another amendment would allow state and local governments to administer temporary and permanent housing construction, with those who implement cost-effective solutions eligible for reimbursement.

The DRRA also calls for expanding the eligibility of grant funding for things like wildfire activities, water resources development projects and assistance for building code and floodplain management, among others.

Key Facts

  • There are two types of incident levels: emergencies and major disasters. Emergencies are usually smaller events in which a limited federal role is sufficient, while major disasters are usually larger scale events, such as a powerful hurricane or earthquake. Only the president can declare an event an emergency or a major disaster.
  • The governor of the state in which a major event has occurred determines whether or not the state has the resources to handle the disaster. If that governor decides the state does not have the ability to handle the response, he or she must then ask the president for help and inform the president of the resources the state is able to commit. The president then decides whether to declare a major disaster and directs the assistance. A similar process takes place for emergencies. This top-down approach often does not include the perspective of people living in the disaster-affected area.
  • In the wake of a federally-declared disaster, the federal government provides assistance to state and local governments. Assistance includes food, shelter, financial assistance and the repair of physical damage resulting from a disaster. For major disasters, long-term recovery loans to individual small businesses are capped at $2 million. FEMA will pay up to 90 percent to state and local governments for debris removal, emergency protective measures, roads and bridges, water control facilities, buildings and equipment and utilities.
  • The president instructs federal agencies to provide states disaster preparedness and mitigation assistance. Federal agencies provide technical assistance to states to help them prepare for disasters and administer grants for the purpose of creating or updating emergency plans. However, state and local governments often lack the capacity and planning resources necessary for effective mitigation.

How to Help

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:

  • Support recovery. In order to increase the effectiveness of long-term recovery, the shortcomings of the Stafford Act must be addressed. Philanthropists can use their convening power to organize donor consortiums to advocate for legislative reform of the Stafford Act and to ensure FEMA delivers a long-term recovery framework.
  • Help affected individuals and households receive case management and mental health services. Current federal funding for case management programs is insufficient and does not meet the needs of disaster victims. Donors can fill this gap and support long-term recovery by funding humanitarian organizations providing case management and mental health services to disaster survivors and workers.
  • Provide small businesses with expedited loans and grants. Small businesses are critical in a community’s recovery process. The current $2 million cap on loans for recovery is not enough and the provision of loans is often too slow. In order to rapidly and effectively stimulate recovery, donors can provide recovery grants and microloans to offset immediate costs for small businesses.
  • Advocate for Stafford Act reform. 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 only by filling funding gaps, but also by advocating for Stafford Act reform which will put in place the remedies and safeguards required to confront the disasters of the future.

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(Photo: FEMA Community Relations representative speaks with a resident in a damaged neighborhood. Source: Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA)