New CRS Report: Considerations for a Catastrophic Declaration – Stafford Act
Bruce R. Lindsay, Analyst in Emergency Management Policy
Francis X. McCarthy, Analyst in Emergency Management Policy
Congressional Research Service, June 21, 2011
SUMMARY: The Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (the Stafford Act) is the principal authority governing federal emergency and disaster response in the United States. The act authorizes the President to issue three categories of declaration: (1) major disaster, (2) emergency, or (3) fire assistance declarations in response to incidents that overwhelm the resources of state and local governments. Once a declaration is issued, a wide range of federal disaster assistance becomes available to eligible individuals and households, public entities, and certain nonprofit organizations. Disaster assistance authorized by the Stafford Act is appropriated by Congress and provided through the Disaster Relief Fund.
Emergency declarations supplement and promote coordination of local and state efforts such as evacuations and protection of public assets. They may also be declared prior to the impact of an incident to protect property, public health and safety and lessen or avert the threat of a major disaster or catastrophe. Major disaster declarations are issued after an incident and constitute broader authority to help states and localities, as well as families and individuals, recover from the damage caused by the event. Fire assistance declarations provide grants to state and localities to manage fires that threaten to cause major disasters.
Recently there has been discussion that the Stafford Act should be amended to include a fourth category, generally called a “catastrophic declaration.” If approved, catastrophic declarations could be invoked for high-profile, large-scale incidents that threaten the lives of many people, create tremendous damage, and pose significant challenges to timely recovery efforts.
This report examines concerns expressed by policymakers and experts that current Stafford Act declarations are inadequate to respond to, and recover from, highly destructive events, and presents the arguments for and against amending the act to add a catastrophic declaration amendment. This report also includes data analyses of past and potential disasters to determine what incidents might be deemed as catastrophic, and explores alternative policy options that might obviate the need for catastrophic declarations.
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