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Saturday, August 27, 2011

Emergency and Disaster

Because of Hurricane Irene, the president has issued several "emergency" declarations. What is the difference between an emergency declaration and a disaster declaration? The Congressional Research Service explains:
Under the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (P.L. 93-288) there are two principal forms of presidential action to authorize federal supplemental assistance. Emergency declarations are made to protect property and public health and safety and to lessen or avert the threat of a major disaster or catastrophe. Emergency declarations are often made when a threat is recognized (such as the emergency declarations for Hurricane Katrina which were made prior to landfall) and are intended to supplement and coordinate local and state efforts prior to the event such as evacuations and protection of public assets. In contrast, a major disaster declaration is made as a result of the disaster or catastrophic event and constitutes a broader authority that helps states and local communities, as well as families and individuals, recover from the damage caused by the event. The differences between the two forms of declarations remain an area of study regarding what events may or may not qualify for the respective declarations.
The president will probably issue disaster declarations in the days ahead. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) explains how federalism comes into play during a disaster:
The Stafford Act (§401) requires that: "All requests for a declaration by the President that a major disaster exists shall be made by the Governor of the affected State." A State also includes the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. The Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia are also eligible to request a declaration and receive assistance.

The Governor's request is made through the regional FEMA office. State and Federal officials conduct a preliminary damage assessment (PDA) to estimate the extent of the disaster and its impact on individuals and public facilities. This information is included in the Governor's request to show that the disaster is of such severity and magnitude that effective response is beyond the capabilities of the State and the local governments and that Federal assistance is necessary. Normally, the PDA is completed prior to the submission of the Governor's request. However, when an obviously severe or catastrophic event occurs, the Governor's request may be submitted prior to the PDA. Nonetheless, the Governor must still make the request.


Based on the Governor's request, the President may declare that a major disaster or emergency exists, thus activating an array of Federal programs to assist in the response and recovery effort. Learn more about evaluating a request for a major disaster declaration.

Not all programs, however, are activated for every disaster. The determination of which programs are activated is based on the needs found during damage assessment and any subsequent information that may be discovered.

Some declarations will provide only individual assistance or only public assistance. Hazard mitigation opportunities are assessed in most situations.

One Hurricane Irene has passed, cleanup will start. But what is cleanup, and who does it? The Congressional Research Service reports:

After a disaster, when a region turns its attention to rebuilding, one of the greatest challenges to moving forward may involve how to properly manage debris generated by the event. Options include typical methods of waste management—landfilling, recycling, or burning. The challenge after a major disaster (e.g., a building or bridge collapse, or a flood, hurricane, or earthquake) is in managing significantly greater amounts of debris often left in the wake of such an event.

Debris after a disaster may include waste soils and sediments, vegetation (trees, limbs, shrubs), municipal solid waste (common household garbage, personal belongings), construction and demolition debris (in some instances, entire residential structures and all their contents), vehicles (cars, trucks, boats), food waste, so-called white goods (refrigerators, freezers, air conditioners), and household hazardous waste (cleaning agents, pesticides, pool chemicals). Each type of waste may contain or be contaminated with certain toxic or hazardous constituents. In the short term, removal of debris is necessary to facilitate the recovery of a geographic area. In the long term, the methods by which these wastes are to be managed require proper consideration to ensure that their management (by landfilling, for example) will not pose future threats to human health or the environment.

After a presidentially declared disaster, federal funding or direct assistance in response to the disaster may be available to a state or local government. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) may provide funding through its Public Assistance (PA) Grant Program for debris removal operations that eliminate immediate threats to lives, public health, and safety, or eliminate immediate threats of significant damage to improved public or private property. The federal share of funding to the affected area will be stated in the disaster declaration, but will be
no less than 75%. The funding will be available for response activities in a designated geographic area for a specific period of time.

In addition to funding, if the state or local government does not have the capability to respond to the disaster, it may request direct federal assistance from FEMA. Federal agencies most likely to assist with debris removal operations are the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (the Corps) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Activities they may perform include right-of-way clearance, curbside waste pickup, private property debris removal, property demolition, assistance with contaminated debris management, and collection of household hazardous waste.