An average year in the United States brings:
- 6 hurricanes
- 1,000 tornadoes
- 5,000 floods
- 10,000 severe thunderstorms
- Severe drought conditions
These events result in 500 deaths, as many as 5,000 injuries and $14 billion in damage.1 Earthquakes, tsunamis, landslides, fires, chemical and hazardous material emergencies can also occur with or without warning. When disasters strike it helps to be prepared and to know where to turn for help.
While you should prepare a home kit in case of emergencies, your state and town can help and are responsible for some emergency programs. The federal government also shares responsibility through the US Department of Homeland Security's Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). FEMA's web site offers tips and information for filing claims in emergencies. It also provides a guide to citizen preparedness.
Why Does the Federal Government Get Involved?
States must use their own money and resources for recovery efforts after a disaster. Major disasters can cause a severe financial strain, resulting in major problems in the long run. Therefore, a state governor can request federal assistance which may provide more funding for recoveries from major disasters.
What's Considered a Major Disaster?
In order to qualify for federal funding and FEMA's Disaster Relief Fund, the disaster must be so large that a state or local government can't handle it on their own. These are Major Disasters. They result from events such as hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, tornadoes or major fires. If deemed a Major Disaster, then there are several paths:
- A Presidential Major Disaster Declaration begins the process for long-term federal recovery programs, sometimes matched by the state. These are to help victims, businesses and public entities suffering from the disaster
- An Emergency Declaration is more limited and doesn't offer the long-term federal recovery programs of a Major Disaster Declaration. Federal assistance and funding are for a specific emergency need or to help prevent a major disaster from occurring in the near future
What Is the Process for Getting a Major Disaster Declaration?
When seeking a Major Disaster Declaration, the process usually involves the following steps:
- First, the local government responds and is assisted by community and volunteer organizations. If they need more help, then they turn to the state
- Second, the state responds using its resources such as state agencies and sometimes the National Guard
- Third, there is a Damage Assessment by local, state, federal and volunteer organizations to determine the losses suffered and the recovery aid needed
- Fourth, based on the damage assessment, the state's governor asks for a Major Disaster Declaration
- Fifth, FEMA evaluates this request and considers the disaster and the state's ability to recover, FEMA then recommends to the President a course of action
- Lastly, the President either approves or denies the request and FEMA informs the governor. Depending on the disaster, the President's decision process could take a few hours or several weeks
What Type of Disaster Aid Programs are Available?
Individual assistance - After the declaration, disaster workers will come to the disaster site and set up an office to help with the recovery effort. You can visit the offices and get information from program representatives. The type of aid for individuals is usually:
- Disaster housing for people's damaged or destroyed homes. You may be able to get money for housing repairs and replacement of damaged items
- Disaster grants to help with expenses that aren't covered by insurance such as personal property as well as medical and funeral expenses
- Low-interest disaster loans are usually available after a disaster for from the US Small Business Administration to cover uninsured property losses. Loans are also available to business owners for property losses and economic injury resulting from the disaster
- Other disaster aid programs can include psychological counseling, unemployment assistance, legal and tax assistance
Public Assistance may be provided to state or local governments to pay for part of the costs of rebuilding the community's damaged property. Typical examples can include removing debris, creating emergency public services, repairing damaged properties and assisting with loans.
Hazard Mitigation funds help individuals and public entities deal with the risks of future disasters. Typical examples include raising properties in areas that flood or making buildings earthquake proof.
What about Warnings?
If your city is expecting severe weather, early preparation can help save your house and even your life. States and municipalities are required to warn you of upcoming threats by the use of warning systems. Since 1951, the government has ways to broadcast warnings to people through an emergency broadcasting system. Since 1971, the US has used the Emergency Alert System (EAS) and each state has its own EAS plan.
The US National Response Framework provides guidelines for responding to disasters and emergencies. FEMA maintains this system. Most towns and cities also rely on broadcast media to get the word out via the EAS. The EAS covers radio stations, cable and digital television.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) requires all broadcast stations to install and maintain EAS decoders and encoders. When there is an alert, a station must relay either a notification message immediately.
When there is an emergency, a text "crawl" must be displayed at the top of the screen. There are some stations that don't participate. This means instead of relaying a message, they tell you to tune to another station for information and then suspend their scheduled programs.
Another option is buying a "weather radio" that picks up weather service warnings. If you don't have a computer, radio or TV, you'll need to rely on sirens or police cars warning residents.
With the recent floods and other severe weather disasters striking, it helps to know that you and your local government are prepared. It can help to investigate what sort of warning system your governor has in place, especially if you live in areas prone to severe weather.
1United States Multi-Hazard Early Warning System, available at http://www.wmo.int/pages/prog/drr/events/MHEWSCostaRica/Docs/Session%202/USA/US%20Early%20Warning%20System%20Costa%20Rica.pdf last visited June 11, 2010.
Questions for Your Attorney
- If there is an evacuation warning, do I have to evacuate, or is it optional?
- How do I apply for assistance if my home was destroyed in a natural disaster?
- Can I receive disaster assistance in addition to payments from my homeowners' policy?