The role of the Federal government post disaster

How the Federal government gets involved 

The U.S. Federal government plays a critical role in helping communities respond and recover from disasters. One of the most important jobs of the federal government is tackling problems beyond the capability of the State and local communities to handle on their own. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is the agency that leads and coordinates the Federal government’s response to a disaster. The National Response Framework (NRF) guides how the nation responds to all types of disasters and emergencies. It is built on scalable, flexible, and adaptable concepts identified in the National Incident Management System to align key roles and responsibilities. 

The NRF is structured to help jurisdictions, citizens, nongovernmental organizations, and businesses: 

  • develop whole community plans,

  • integrate continuity plans,

  • build capabilities to respond to cascading failures among businesses, supply chains, and infrastructure sectors, and 

  • collaborate to stabilize community lifelines and restore services.

The Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (Stafford Act) authorizes the existing federal disaster management framework. When a State or Tribal government lacks the resources and capacity to respond to a disaster, they can request federal assistance. If the President makes an “emergency declaration” or “major disaster declaration,” the Federal Emergency Management Agency is authorized to activate emergency response and disaster relief support from the Disaster Relief Fund (DRF). 

There are several types of disaster declarations provided for in the Stafford Act. All major Disaster Declarations authorize the President to provide supplemental Federal disaster assistance. The Governor of the affected State or Tribal Chief Executive of the affected Tribe must submit the request to the President through the appropriate Regional Administrator within 30 days of the incident.    

  1. Pre-Disaster Declaration: A Governor or Tribal Chief Executive may request an emergency declaration in advance or anticipation of an incident. Requests must demonstrate critical needs beyond the State, Tribal, or affected local government's capability. The request must also identify specific unmet emergency needs that the Federal government can meet through Direct Federal Assistance (DFA). These needs may include but are not limited to personnel, equipment, supplies, and evacuation assistance.     

  1. Emergency Declarations: Emergency declarations supplement State, Tribal, and local government efforts to provide emergency services or reduce the threat of a catastrophe in any part of the U.S. The total amount of assistance provided for in a single emergency may not exceed $5 million. The President shall report to Congress if this amount is exceeded. Under an emergency declaration, States can receive Public Assistance or Individual Assistance from FEMA (see more about types of assistance FEMA provides, below).   

  1. Major Disaster Declaration: The President can declare a major disaster for any natural hazard beyond the combined capabilities of State, Tribal, and local governments to respond. A major disaster declaration provides a wide range of federal assistance programs for individuals and public infrastructure, including emergency and permanent funds.  

The disaster declaration process involves many steps (see graphic below).  Every year, many disasters occur around the country that doesn’t make it through this process because they aren’t “severe” enough, leaving local areas to recover alone.

Infographic that shows how a disaster gets declared from the disaster event to the State to the Federal goverment


The role of the Federal government  

When the President does declare a disaster, the Federal government, FEMA, responds at the request of States, Tribes, Territories, Insular Areas, local jurisdiction, U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Marshall Islands, Guam, and American Samoa.  

In addition to tactical and coordinating assistance for the community, FEMA provides several main types of assistance, including Individual Assistance, Public Assistance, and Hazard Mitigation Assistance, following Disaster Declarations. Amounts of funding depend on the assessment of need.  

  • Individual Assistance: Individual assistance is money or material support given directly to an individual, family, or business owner. Residents can seek disaster housing for up to 18 months if their residence is destroyed or made uninhabitable. They may also be eligible for cash grants to help cover expenses while the area recovers and rebuilds. Counseling services also assist residents with overcoming the trauma of the disaster.  Business owners can also seek relief through the individual assistance program. In addition to the individual assistance program, business owners may apply for small business loans and grants to offset the lost economic opportunities and damage to the business caused by the disaster. 

  • Public Assistance: Major disasters can destroy important infrastructures, such as roads, bridges, and power grids. Public assistance subsidizes the cost of repairs by providing 75 percent of the project's total cost to the community through Federal funds.  

  • Hazard Mitigation Assistance: Assistance to State, Tribal, and local governments and certain private nonprofit organizations for actions taken to prevent or reduce long-term risk to life and property from natural hazards.  

Read more about these funding sources in: 

Other Federal agencies offer funding and support to individuals and public entities after a disaster.  Some of the primary ones include: 

  • The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) offers a range of services, including technical assistance to communities on recovery and rebuilding through the Compass Program. HUD guides protecting and recovering housing from disasters and funding to support community needs through the Community Development Grant Program (CDBG) and CDBG-Mitigation (MIT) program. Funding via HUD under the CDBG suite of programs is intended to be a long-term funding source that supports community rebuilding over multiple years.  

  • Fannie Mae is a government-sponsored enterprise (GSE) that the U.S. Congress chartered in 1938 to provide a reliable source of affordable mortgage financing across the country. The federal government created GSEs to help stabilize the financial market. Fannie Mae offers disaster counseling for homeowners and renters and can forebear mortgages to help reduce the economic impact of the disaster.   

  • U.S. Department of Agriculture offers technical assistance, loans, and grants to rural communities, including Tribes, throughout recovery and in advance of an event such as a drought or extreme heat.