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The Federal Disaster Declaration Process and Disaster Aid Programs


First RESPONSE to a disaster is the job of local government's emergency services with help from nearby municipalities, the state and volunteer agencies. In a catastrophic disaster, and if the governor requests, federal resources can be mobilized through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for search and rescue, electrical power, food, water, shelter and other basic human needs.

It is the long-term RECOVERY phase of disaster which places the most severe financial strain on a local or state government. Damage to public facilities and infrastructure, often not insured, can overwhelm even a large city.

A governor's request for a major disaster declaration could mean an infusion of federal funds, but the governor must also commit significant state funds and resources for recovery efforts.

A Major Disaster could result from a hurricane, earthquake, flood, tornado or major fire which the President determines warrants supplemental federal aid. The event must be clearly more than state or local governments can handle alone. If declared, funding comes from the President's Disaster Relief Fund, which is managed by FEMA, and disaster aid programs of other participating federal agencies.

A Presidential Major Disaster Declaration puts into motion long-term federal recovery programs, some of which are matched by state programs, and designed to help disaster victims, businesses and public entities.

An Emergency Declaration is more limited in scope and without the long-term federal recovery programs of a Major Disaster Declaration. Generally, federal assistance and funding are provided to meet a specific emergency need or to help prevent a major disaster from occurring.


A Major Disaster Declaration usually follows these steps:

  • Local Government Responds, supplemented by neighboring communities and volunteer agencies. If overwhelmed, turn to the state for assistance;
  • The State Responds with state resources, such as the National Guard and state agencies;
  • Damage Assessment by local, state, federal, and volunteer organizations determines losses and recovery needs;
  • A Major Disaster Declaration is requested by the governor, based on the damage assessment, and an agreement to commit state funds and resources to the long-term recovery;
  • FEMA Evaluates the request and recommends action to the White House based on the disaster, the local community and the state's ability to recover;
  • The President approves the request or FEMA informs the governor it has been denied. This decision process could take a few hours or several weeks depending on the nature of the disaster.


There are two major categories of disaster aid:

  1. Individual Assistance - for damage to residences and businesses or personal property losses, and
  2. Public Assistance - for repair of infrastructure, public facilities and debris removal.


Immediately after the declaration, recovery workers arrive, set up offices and may open Disaster Application Centers as required. The center is a central point at which disaster victims meet with interviewers to describe their personal losses and apply for aid. Under any circumstances, there is always a toll-free teleregistration number available to take applications by phone.

Disaster aid to individuals generally falls into the following categories:

  • Disaster Housing may be available for up to 18 months, using local resources, for persons whose residences were damaged or destroyed. This program also includes funding for emergency repairs to damaged homes.
  • Low-Interest Disaster Loans are available after a disaster for homeowners and renters from the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) to cover uninsured property losses. Loans may be for repair or replacement of homes, automobiles, clothing or other damaged personal property. Loans are also available to businesses for property loss and economic injury.
  • Disaster Grants, ranging from several hundred dollars to a maximum of $13,100, are available to disaster victims who are unable to repay a loan. Grants are for serious disaster-related needs and necessary expenses not covered by other programs. These may include replacement of clothing, automobiles or medical expenses.
  • Other Disaster Aid Programs include crisis counseling, disaster-related unemployment assistance, legal aid and assistance with income tax, Social Security and Veteran's benefits. Other state or local help may also be available.

Assistance Process -- After the application is taken, the damaged property is inspected to verify the loss. If approved, an applicant will soon receive a check for rental assistance or a grant. Loan applications require more information and approval may take several weeks after application. The deadline for most individual assistance programs is 60 days following the President's major disaster declaration.

Audits are done later to ensure that aid went to only those who were eligible and that disaster aid funds were used only for their intended purposes. These federal program funds cannot duplicate assistance provided by other sources such as insurance.

After a major disaster, FEMA tries to notify all disaster victims about the available aid programs and urge them to apply. The news media are encouraged to visit an application center, meet with disaster officials, and help publicize the disaster aid programs and the toll-free teleregistration number.


Public Assistance is aid to state or local governments to pay part of the costs of rebuilding a community's damaged infrastructure. Generally, public assistance programs pay for 75 per cent of the approved project costs. Public Assistance may include debris removal, emergency protective measures and public services, repair of damaged public property, loans needed by communities for essential government functions and grants for public schools.


Disaster victims and public entities are encouraged to avoid the life and property risks of future disasters. Examples include the elevation or relocation of chronically flood-damaged homes away from flood hazard areas, retrofitting buildings to make them resistant to earthquakes or strong winds, and adoption and enforcement of adequate codes and standards by local, state and federal government. FEMA encourages and helps fund damage mitigation measures when repairing disaster damaged structures. - December 1996

Updated: January 13, 1998
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