A disaster can strike anytime and anywhere. It can take any form: a hurricane, an earthquake, a tornado, a flood, a fire, a hazardous spill, an act of nature or an act of terrorism. When disaster strikes, it is unlikely that any one state has adequate resources to provide an adequate response. The job to prepare and rapidly respond to national disasters falls on the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

FEMA's Mission

FEMA is part of the Department of Homeland Security and works through 10 regional centers in coordinating national disaster relief efforts with state and local emergency management agencies by providing a comprehensive management relief system to:

  • Plan, coordinate and develop the means to respond to terrorist incidents and natural disasters
  • Reduce or eliminate the risk to people and property from hazards by adopting zoning ordinances and building codes and taking action
  • Deliver an immediate response to individuals, businesses and communities impacted by acts of terrorism, national emergencies and national disasters

Disaster Response Process

When a major disaster strikes, the following steps are taken in a matter of hours or over the course of a few weeks:

  • The local government responds with sheriff, police, fire and emergency medical services departments, search and rescue units and other local services
  • The state responds with the National Guard and other state agencies
  • A damage assessment is made by local, state, federal and volunteer organizations to determine losses and recovery needs
  • If necessary, a major disaster declaration is requested by the governor with an agreement to commit state funds and resources to the long-term recovery
  • FEMA evaluates the request and recommends action to the President
  • The President approves the request and declares a national disaster or denies the request

Disaster Assistance

FEMA manages three categories of assistance programs: individual assistance, public assistance and hazard mitigation assistance. Disaster assistance services are activated upon the President's disaster declaration. However, the assistance provided is generally determined by the needs found in the damage assessment.

Individual Assistance Programs

In disaster declared areas, FEMA programs provide assistance to individuals, households and small business who suffered losses that are not covered by insurance. Types of assistance provided include:

  • Temporary housing
  • Housing repair and replacement grants and loans
  • Permanent housing construction assistance in unusual situations, insular areas or remote locations
  • Individual or household grants or loans for medical, dental, funeral, personal property, transportation, moving and storage and other expenses approved by FEMA
  • Business physical disaster loans to repair and replace buildings, including inventory and supplies
  • Economic injury disaster loans to provide capital for small business during the recovery period
  • Disaster unemployment assistance benefits
  • Crisis counseling
  • Legal assistance with insurance claims, landlord-tenant problems, consumer protection matters, replacement of wills and other legal documents and special assistance to low-income individuals
  • Taxpayer assistance

Public Assistance Programs

State and local government agencies and certain private nonprofit organizations providing critical services are provided federal funds to repair, restore, reconstruct or replace public facilities or infrastructure damaged or destroyed by a disaster. Projects receiving public assistance fall in the following categories:

  • Debris removal
  • Emergency protective measures
  • Roads and bridges
  • Water control facilities
  • Public buildings and their contents
  • Public utilities
  • Parks and recreation facilities and property

Hazard Mitigation Programs

FEMA provides funds to state and local governments to reduce or eliminate long-term risk from natural hazards. The types of mitigation projects funded by FEMA include:

  • The acquisition and demolition of disaster prone property and converting its use to open space, such as parks or playing fields
  • The relocation of structures from floodplains and other disaster prone areas
  • The elevation of residential structures and flood proofing of commercial structures when these methods are more practical to reducing the risk of flood damage

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