Monies or services made available to individuals and communities that have experienced losses due to disasters such as floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, drought, tornadoes, and riots.
The term disaster has been applied in U.S. law in a broad sense to mean both human-made and natural catastrophes. Human-made catastrophes include civil disturbances such as riots and demonstrations; warfare-related upheavals, including those created by guerrilla activity and
terrorism; refugee crises involving the forced movements of people across borders; and many possible accidents, including transportation, mining, pollution, chemical, and nuclear incidents.
Natural disasters may be divided into three categories: meteorological disasters, such as hurricanes,
hailstorms, tornadoes, typhoons, snowstorms, droughts, cold spells, and heat waves; topological catastrophes, such as earthquakes, avalanches, landslides, and floods; and biological disasters, including insect swarms and disease epidemics.
A disaster may also be defined in sociological terms as a major disruption of the social pattern of individuals and groups.
Disaster relief efforts are typically an example of federalism at work, as local, state, and national governments take on varied responsibilities. However, disaster relief has historically been considered a local responsibility, with the federal government providing assistance when local and state relief capacities are exhausted.
Most states have agencies that coordinate disaster relief and planning. A majority of states have statutes that define appropriate procedures for disaster declarations and emergency orders. Such statutes also empower relief agencies to utilize state and local resources, commandeer private property, and arrange for temporary housing during an emergency.
The federal government has played an increasingly influential role in disaster response and preparedness. In fact, as federal disaster assistance grew in the late twentieth century, it became a unique form of aid to states and localities. Often, significant amounts of money are made available to a disaster area for years after the disaster has occurred.
At all levels of government, disaster relief is carried out under the authority of an executive official: a city mayor, a state governor, or the nation's president. In the last instance, federal disaster legislation gives the president wide powers. The president decides what situations may be declared disasters and dictates the extent of federal assistance.
Under the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (Stafford Act) (Pub. L. No. 93-288, 42 U.S.C.A. § 5121 et seq.), the president may declare a catastrophe either an emergency or a major disaster. This classification is not necessarily indicative of the severity of the event. Instead, the designation determines the extent of federal aid available for the particular calamity. In general, more federal funds are available for major disasters than for emergencies. For the president to declare either an emergency or a major disaster, the governor of the affected state must announce that the catastrophe is of such severity that state resources cannot effectively cope with it.
After a formal declaration has been made at the federal level, all authority for disaster relief operations descends from the president, through the federal emergency management agency (FEMA), and down to other agencies engaged in relief operations. First established in 1979, FEMA coordinates federal efforts related to natural disaster planning, preparedness, response, and recovery. FEMA funds emergency programs and works closely with state and local governments.
After the president declares an emergency or major disaster, FEMA implements the Federal Response Plan. This plan identifies 12 emergency support functions (ESFs), each of which entails a particular aspect of the relief operation, and assigns specific federal agencies to each function. For example, under the Stafford Act, the department of defense (DOD) is the primary agency responsible for ESF 3 (public works and engineering), and ESF 9 (urban search and rescue). The DOD may provide secondary support for all other ESFs.
FEMA administers the President's Disaster Assistance Program, which provides supplemental federal assistance in declared disasters and emergencies. FEMA also operates the Emergency Food and Shelter Program, which provides grants to private, nonprofit organizations for temporary food and shelter for homeless persons. In addition, FEMA controls the Federal Insurance Administration, which oversees the National Flood Insurance Program, a self-supporting program that provides flood insurance to communities that adopt its floodplain management regulations to reduce the effect of future floods.
Although the Stafford Act authorizes the president to call on the DOD to assist state and local governments in times of disaster, the use of the federal armed forces in such situations is limited by law. For example, the posse comitatus Act (18 U.S.C.A. § 1385) prohibits the military from performing the duties of civil law enforcement. The DOD has no independent authority to undertake disaster relief operations, though according to the Stafford Act, it may do so for an emergency ten-day period before the president declares an emergency or disaster. In times of civil disturbance such as the 1992 Los Angeles riots, the president may issue a proclamation that permits federal armed forces to take on law enforcement duties in order to put down a civil disturbance (10 U.S.C.A. §§ 331–334).
Congress and state legislatures may also make assistance available in times of disaster. For example, the Disaster Assistance Act of 1988 (7 U.S.C.A. §§ 1421, 1471; 26 U.S.C.A. § 451) made $5 billion available to farmers during a severe drought. Farmers who had lost more than 35 percent of their crops could receive up to $100,000 to cover 65 percent of their losses over an initial threshold. When Hurricane Hugo hit the southeastern coastal states in 1989, Congress approved $1.1 billion in aid only six days later.
Congress has also authorized other agencies to provide disaster assistance. The Small Business Administration's Office of Disaster Assistance supplies loans to businesses that suffer economic losses owing to natural disasters. The agriculture department provides emergency loans to eligible farmers and ranchers for losses owing to natural disasters. It may also give farmers cost-sharing assistance as well as the use of land that was previously set aside for conservation purposes. The U.S. government's Agency for International Development makes disaster relief and planning available to foreign countries.
Private organizations, including the Red Cross and the Salvation Army, play a significant role in disaster relief as well. In 1905, Congress officially recognized the Red Cross and its role in responding to significant crises (36 U.S.C.A. § 1), and all subsequent federal disaster laws
have renewed this recognition. The Red Cross makes a careful distinction between its humanitarian relief activities, including the provision of food and shelter, and activities that it believes are best handled by government.
Experts on disaster relief have increasingly called for a greater emphasis on prevention as opposed to relief. Plans for improved disaster preparedness often call for a greater use of new technologies, including satellite and radar technologies that would aid in the early detection of potential disasters.
Before 1950, disaster response was characterized by an ad hoc, or case by case, approach. Relief involved a reaction to specific crises with little planning or preparation for future disasters. Then, as now, it was initially activated by local or state officials, and, if necessary, appeals were made to the federal government. Such an approach was often so disorganized that it frustrated effective disaster relief. Federal aid was rarely immediate and instead came some time after a disaster had occurred. Critics often complained that the federal response to disasters was dilatory, insufficient, and inconsistent.
During the 1930s, the expansion of the federal government under the New Deal—including greater federal participation in public works projects—led to a greater federal role in disaster assistance. new deal agencies such as the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, Federal Emergency Relief Administration, Federal Civilian Works Administration, Works Progress Administration, and Civilian Conservation Corps all participated in disaster control and recovery. The Army Corps of Engineers helped communities to prevent and recover from flood damage, and the department of agriculture offered aid to farmers who sustained economic losses in disasters. The 1930s marked the federal government's first use of low-interest loans and outright grants for disaster relief—both features of subsequent disaster laws. During this same decade, Congress considered making the American Red Cross a government agency, but Red Cross officials chose to keep their organization private.
With the passage of the Disaster Relief Act of 1950 (Pub. L. No. 81-875, 64 Stat. 1109), Congress for the first time authorized a coordinated federal response to major disasters. The act, which was repealed in 1970, defined a disaster as "[a]ny flood, drought, fire, hurricane, earthquake, storm, or other catastrophe in any part of the U.S. which in the determination of the President, is or threatens to be of sufficient severity and magnitude to warrant disaster assistance by the Federal government." Significantly, this definition gave the president broad powers to respond to a crisis, powers that are related to the president's role as commander in chief of the nation's military and that have remained in all subsequent federal disaster legislation.
Later laws gradually increased the scope of federal disaster assistance. In the 1950s and 1960s, Congress authorized the provision of temporary shelter, surplus federal supplies, loans, and unemployment assistance for disaster victims. Many of these features were later incorporated into the comprehensive Disaster Relief Act of 1970 (84 Stat. 1744 [42 U.S.C.A. § 4401 et seq.]). This act also offered generous assistance for the reconstruction of public facilities, authorizing 100 percent federal financing for such projects even when reconstruction went beyond damage caused by a particular disaster.
The Stafford Act expanded further the role of the federal government in disaster relief. Under this legislation, the federal government may provide grants to fund a number of additional forms of assistance: the full cost for the reconstruction of certain private, nonprofit facilities and owner-occupied private residential structures; loans to local governments to cover operating expenses; free temporary housing for up to 12 months; the installation of essential utilities; mortgage or rental payments to individuals for up to one year; and food stamps, legal services, and counseling services for low-income citizens. The act also includes an unprecedented authorization of long-range community economic recovery programs for disaster areas. Under these provisions, recovery planning councils develop five-year recovery investment plans, which are eligible to receive up to 90 percent of their funding from the federal government.
In 1979, concerns about overly bureaucratic procedures and a lack of coordination in government efforts to respond to disasters, as well as the need for improved programs for disaster prevention and preparedness, led to the creation of FEMA. A poor federal response to disasters such as Hurricane Hugo and the Loma Prieta earthquake, both occurring in 1989, prompted calls for a greater use of the military in disaster relief. In 1993, amendments to the Stafford Act empowered the president to more readily call on the federal armed forces to assist in disaster relief.
Disaster Relief for September 11 Victims
The september 11, 2001, terrorist attacks against the United States triggered what became an unprecedented level of federal disaster relief. The twin towers at the World Trade Center complex in New York City collapsed after being targeted by two hijacked commercial airliners, and four other buildings partially collapsed shortly thereafter. Several nearby buildings also suffered extensive collateral damage. After the World Trade Center attacks, another hijacked plane was deliberately crashed into the Pentagon and a fourth hijacked plane crashed in Somerset County, Pennsylvania.
In response to the attacks, President george w. bush immediately signed a major disaster declaration for 5 counties in New York. The disaster declaration was amended on September 27 and again on October 2, 2001, making all counties in the state of New York eligible for some form of federal disaster assistance in the wake of the terrorist attack. The president also promptly declared a federal emergency in Virginia under subsection 501(b) of the Stafford Act, and a short time later declared a major disaster in Virginia to trigger a broader range of Stafford-Act responses.
In addition, the president declared an emergency for all 21 counties in New Jersey. These declarations made available federal programs that provide assistance for families and individuals victimized by the attacks. Normally, the federal government provides 75 percent of the disaster response costs with the remaining 25 percent of the costs undertaken by non-federal entities. However, FEMA reimbursed the states and affected local governments for 100 percent of the eligible costs for debris removal, emergency protective measures, and public infrastructure rebuilding costs in response to the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Minutes after the first hijacked airplane hit the World Trade Center, FEMA activated a full Emergency Support Team at its National Interagency Emergency Operations Center in Washington, D.C. Federal officials immediately began arriving at the center to coordinate the nationwide response and recovery effort. Some 1,800 federal workers were deployed to New York to support the disaster response, about 800 from FEMA and almost 1,000 from other federal departments and agencies.
FEMA'S top priorities throughout its entire disaster response effort included: (1) providing urban search and rescue support; (2) assisting in life saving operations; (3) meeting individual and public assistance needs; (4) implementing human services and victims assistance programs; and (5) assisting in debris removal (FEMA helped remove close to 1.4 million tons of debris from the disaster areas, then transported the debris to the sorting and disposal site at the Staten Island landfill).
The New York City Office of Emergency Management's US&R Task Force was among the first responders at the World Trade Center. The New York Force is part of FEMA's 28 Task Forces that make up the National US&R Response System. Its Task Force leader, Chief Raymond Downey, was one of the first responders on the scene, where he ultimately died during search and rescue operations. The department of health and human services and publichealth service played an important role in the health and medical response. One hundred and sixty-seven persons were assigned to Disaster Medical Assistance Teams and a Medical Support Team to support the response in New York and remain in the City. Thirty-three Centers for Disease Control epidemiologists were assigned to track illness trends. A Veterinary Medical Assistance Team was deployed to treat the rescue dogs.
Since the Stafford Act prohibits FEMA from duplicating disaster assistance, FEMA had to be very careful in coordinating its activities with all of the organizations providing disaster relief. For example, FEMA worked with the Department of Justice's Office for Victims of Crime to maximize the investigative resources deployed at Ground Zero, which was not only a disaster area but a crime scene as well. FEMA also deployed resources to non-governmental organizations that were having difficulty managing the flood of charitable donations made by people around the world. Finally, FEMA worked with the national transportation safety board (NTSB) to provide assistance from United and American Airlines to the families of the victims.
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