What Local Officials
Need to Know
By Stephen Kempf
FEMA, Region 11
By law, FEMA can not pay to return a home to its pre-disaster condition. Rather, FEMA grants are designed to provide a helping hand toward recovery. They will never—nor are they intended to—make you whole.
Too often local officials think of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) only when they or their constituents are standing in three feet of water. This is actually a fairly common scenario, and it illustrates a widespread and fundamental misunderstanding of the agency’s role and its mission. So just in case you ever find yourself wet, cold and thinking of FEMA, here’s a brief overview of what we do, and when we do it.
Empowered by the Stafford Act of 1988, FEMA provides federal assistance when local, county and state facilities are overwhelmed. That means FEMA is NOT among your community’s first-responders. Legally—and practically—we are the responders of last resort. Clearly, this is an important distinction.
In fact, because of the sovereignty accorded states under the US Constitution, FEMA must be explicitly invited into a state by its governor. But before the governor can make that request, he or she must certify that the event prompting it exceeds the state’s capacities to respond. Once the state certifies that, the governor formally requests—and that request must be in writing—the President to declare the affected area a federal disaster. The President’s declaration mobilizes FEMA—its programs, personnel and resources.
FEMA’s two major programs to respond to a disaster—and to speed recovery—are the Individual Assistance (IA) and Public Assistance (PA) programs.
Individual Assistance, as its name suggests, is for individuals—whether they are homeowners or renters. The centerpiece of IA is the Individual and Household Program (IHP). The primary goal of IHP is to return a residence to a safe, sanitary and functioning condition. It can also provide help in storage costs and either short-term housing or longer-term rental assistance, which is often necessary when a home is being repaired.
In 2007, the maximum grant for the IHP was set at $28,200, but it is important to note that program maximums are seldom reached. Also, by law, FEMA can not pay to return a home to its pre-disaster condition. Rather, FEMA grants are designed to provide a helping hand toward recovery. They will never—nor are they intended to—make you whole.
But disasters often destroy more than basic shelter, and IA includes other initiatives to respond to the specific needs disaster victims routinely face. Among the other programs under the IA umbrella are:
Disaster Legal Services, which provides low-income disaster victims with free legal services for disaster-related issues, including disputes with insurance companies or legal guidance on tenants’ rights.
Disaster Unemployment Assistance is particularly important for the self-employed, who would not normally qualify for unemployment insurance. This program is funded by the federal government but administered by the state, and is open to anyone who lost their job or whose scheduled employment was canceled as a result of the disaster. It will also assist anyone injured or incapacitated as a direct result of the disaster.
Crisis Counseling Assistance helps victims work through the grief, stress and mental health problems caused or aggravated by a major disaster and its aftermath.
Other Needs Assistance (ONA) This grant program is jointly funded by the state and federal governments. Federal funds make up 75 percent of the grants; state funds 25 percent. The program is designed to defray disaster-related expenses and address critical household needs, including household items like appliances, clothing, specialized tools or educational materials. ONA grants can also be used to repair or replace an individual’s primary means of transportation, as well as the moving and storage expenses related to the disaster. Medical and dental treatments related to the disaster can be paid under this program, as can funeral expenses if the death was caused by the disaster.
But for state and local officials, FEMA’s Public Assistance (PA) program is probably the most important of the agency’s recovery initiatives. The PA program is designed to help state and local governments, as well as certain private nonprofit organizations, repair the community infrastructure. Covered projects include roads, bridges, water control facilities, utilities, public buildings, parks, etc. The program can also help with costs associated with debris removal and emergency protection measures, including police overtime and any other costs that were necessary to accomplish eligible work.
Under the PA program the federal government provides a minimum of 75 percent of project funding, with the state’s remaining 25 percent share often split between the state itself and local applicants.
Once a disaster is declared, applicants have 30 days to submit a Request for Public Assistance. The PA application is quite specific, so each applicant is assigned a Public Assistance Coordinator within a week of making their request to guide them through the process.
As public officials, it is in your own best interest—and those of your constituents—to familiarize yourself with the PA process to ensure that in a post-disaster situation your community is aware of the difference between eligible and ineligible projects. This vital distinction marks the difference between reimbursable work and costs the community must shoulder alone.
But for both communities and individuals, the largest source of recovery funds are not FEMA’s programs at all, but rather the low-interest loans offered by our federal partners at the Small Business Administration. The SBA’s Disaster Relief is likewise activated by Presidential declaration. In fact, despite its name, more than 80 percent of the loans SBA writes in a post-disaster situation are to individuals, not businesses. These loans will cover everything from home repair to mitigation measures. Homeowners may apply for up to $200,000 to repair or replace a primary residence to pre-disaster conditions. Both homeowners and renters are also eligible for loans of up to $40,000 to repair or replace clothing, furniture, cars and appliances destroyed in the disaster. In addition, businesses of all sizes and nonprofit organizations are also eligible for disaster assistance from SBA.
Since 2000, SBA has made more than 330,000 loans to individuals, representing more than $12.8 billion, compared to $11.7 billion in IHP grants during that same period. The SBA’s Disaster Loan Program is also available to nonprofit organizations for their disaster-related losses. In addition, if a federal disaster is not declared, the Administrator of the SBA has the authority to make a disaster declaration that makes the agency’s Disaster Loan Program available to the affected population. This happened in the explosion of a steam pipe near New York City’s Grand Central Station last summer.
But the best kept secret of disaster relief may be FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Programs. Those programs include the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP), which becomes available after a disaster is declared. Other mitigation grant programs that are available every year but are not disaster dependent are: the Flood Mitigation Assistance Program (FMA); the Pre-Disaster Mitigation grant program(PDM); and the Repetitive Flood Claims grant program (RFC). These grant programs fund mitigation measures to reduce or permanently eliminate the long-term risk to people and property from natural hazards. Eligible activities include property buyouts, localized flood control projects, retrofitting structures to protect against natural hazards like high winds, earthquakes or floods and the development of state, local or tribal mitigation plans, a pre-condition for many of FEMA’s mitigation grants.
The HMGP is activated whenever a federal disaster is declared by the President. At the state’s discretion and project prioritization, all communities in the state—even those that have not been declared disaster areas—are eligible for federal funds to address its systemic risks. By taking advantage of this option, and thinking about FEMA before the first rain drops fall, local officials can ensure that they—and their constituents—are not standing alone in flood waters, but rather shoulder to shoulder with federal and state mitigation officials as they work to reduce a community’s exposure to natural disasters. And it is hoped that they will be dry and safe. Ultimately, this is FEMA’s mission