1. What is FEMA?
The federal government has a long history of providing disaster relief to Americans. This history dates back to at least 1803, when a devastating fire in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, threatened commerce in the newly founded United States.
Today, FEMA–which stands for the “Federal Emergency Management Agency”–leads the federal government’s response to disasters. President Carter established FEMA by executive order in 1979.
In 1988, Congress refined FEMA’s role with the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (“Stafford Act”). The Stafford Act provided clear direction for emergency management, and established the current statutory framework for disaster response and recovery through presidential disaster declarations.
In 2001, in response to 9/11, FEMA and 21 other organizations were all rolled into a single federal agency—the Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”).
In 2006, when the federal response to Hurricane Katrina fell short, Congress passed the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of 2006. This act established FEMA as a distinct agency within DHS, defined FEMA’s primary mission, and designated the FEMA Administrator as the principal advisor to the President, the Homeland Security Council, and the Secretary of Homeland Security for all matters relating to emergency management in the United States.
In 2013, after Hurricane Sandy, Congress passed the Sandy Recovery Improvement Act to streamline the recovery of public infrastructure and to allow federally recognized tribes to directly request a presidential disaster declaration.
In 2017, a historic wildfire season prompted Congress to pass the Disaster Recovery Reform Act of 2018. This act acknowledged the shared responsibility for disaster response and recovery, aimed to reduce the complexity of FEMA, and built the nation’s capacity for future catastrophic events.
2. When does FEMA step in to help?
For FEMA to step in, the President of the United States must declare that a disaster has occurred or will soon occur. These declarations are made solely at the President’s discretion. When federal lands or buildings are threatened by disaster, the President is free to declare a disaster without a request. Otherwise, it is up to state or tribal officials to ask the President to make a formal disaster declaration.
The Stafford Act, for example, states in part that, “[a]ll requests for a declaration by the President that a major disaster exists shall be made by the Governor of the affected State.” And under the Sandy Recovery Improvement Act of 2013, federally recognized indigenous tribes can request disaster declarations, as well.
Once a request for a disaster declaration is made, local, state, and/or tribal officials, along with FEMA officials, conduct a preliminary damage assessment. This involves a site visit to conduct a thorough assessment of the impacted area to determine:
- the extent of the disaster;
- its impact on individuals and public facilities; and
- the types of federal assistance that may be needed.
This information is given to the President to show that the disaster is of such severity and magnitude that an effective response is beyond the capabilities of the local, state, and/or tribal governments, and that federal assistance is necessary.
Typically, the preliminary damage assessment is done before the state or tribal officials request a disaster declaration from the President. But when an obviously severe or catastrophic event occurs, the request can be submitted before a preliminary damage assessment, although FEMA can only provide certain types of assistance until a complete damage assessment is done.
3. What are some ways FEMA can help?
The type of help FEMA can provide depends on the type of disaster declaration made by the President. There are three main types of declarations: (1) emergency declarations, (2) major-disaster declarations, and (3) fire-assistance declarations.
The President can declare an emergency for any occasion or instance the President feels is appropriate. Such declarations are made to supplement local, state, and/or tribal emergency services for the protection of lives, property, public health, and safety, or to lessen or avert the threat of a catastrophe in any part of the United States. The total amount of assistance provided for a single emergency may not exceed $5 million. The President shall report to Congress if this amount is exceeded.
When the President has made an emergency declaration, the following types of federal assistance may be authorized:
- Public Assistance:
- Category A – debris removal
- Category B – emergency protective measures
- Individual Assistance:
- Individuals and Households Program (housing assistance)
The President can also make a pre-disaster emergency declaration, which may include public assistance for personnel, equipment, supplies, and evacuation assistance before a disaster hits.
Major-disaster declarations are more serious than emergency declarations. The President can declare a major disaster for any natural event (including any hurricane, tornado, storm, high water, wind-driven water, tidal wave, tsunami, earthquake, volcanic eruption, landslide, mudslide, snowstorm, drought), or for a fire, flood, or explosion (regardless of the cause). The President will issue a major-disaster declaration if the President determines the disaster has caused damage of such severity that it is beyond the combined capabilities of state and local governments to respond.
If a major disaster has been declared, a wide range of federal assistance programs are available for individuals and public infrastructure, including funds for both emergency and permanent work:
- Public Assistance: Assistance to local, state, and/or tribal governments, and certain non-profit organizations, for emergency work and the repair or replacement of disaster-damaged facilities, which may include:
- Category A – Debris removal
- Category B – Emergency protective measures
- Category C – Roads and bridges
- Category D – Water control facilities
- Category E – Buildings and equipment
- Category F – Utilities
- Category G – Parks, recreational and other facilities
- Individual Assistance: Assistance to individuals and households, which may include:
- Individuals and Households Program (housing assistance)
- Crisis Counseling Program
- Disaster Case Management
- Disaster Unemployment Assistance
- Disaster Legal Services
- Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program
- Hazard Mitigation Assistance: Assistance to local, state, and/or tribal governments, and certain non-profit organizations, for actions taken to prevent or reduce long term risk to life and property from natural hazards.
Fire Management Assistance Grant (“FMAG”) declarations are generally made before wildfires get out of hand—at the time a “threat of major disaster” exists. The entire process is accomplished on an expedited basis and a FEMA decision is rendered in a matter of hours.
If an FMAG declaration is made, federal assistance is available to local, state, and tribal governments, for the mitigation, management, and control of fires on publicly or privately owned forests or grasslands, which threaten such destruction as would constitute a major disaster. Federal assistance is generally limited to firefighting costs.
Eligible firefighting costs may include expenses for field camps; equipment use, repair, and replacement; tools, materials, and supplies; and mobilization and demobilization activities.
There are different assistance programs for individuals and families versus government agencies and non-profit organizations.
For individuals and families looking for FEMA assistance, the Individual Assistance Program and Policy Guide (Jan. 2019) is the go-to source.
Because there are so many types of assistance that may be available following a disaster, FEMA has provided an online tool to determine what disaster assistance might be available to you. The Find Assistance tool will lead individuals, families, and small business owners to an array of possible assistance options.
Once you determine what types of assistance might be available to you, FEMA also provides a convenient way to apply for assistance online and to check the status of your application at https://www.disasterassistance.gov/. Through the online FEMA Disaster Assistance Center, you can create an online account. Within this account, you can:
- review your disaster assistance application information;
- update your personal information and needs;
- view letters and messages from FEMA;
- receive requests for additional documents that FEMA needs to process your application;
- upload documents in support of your application; and
- review information that FEMA has received from you.
After you apply, your assistance will be determined by comparing your recorded essential losses and serious needs with the types of assistance available within FEMA programs and services.
FEMA assistance is not the same as insurance, nor is it designed to make the survivor whole. Federal assistance from FEMA only provides funds for the basic repairs to make a home safe, sanitary and livable.
You may also be referred to the U.S. Small Business Administration (“SBA”) for low-interest disaster loans to further assist with your recovery.
Of course, if you have an emergency that FEMA cannot help with immediately, consider the following:
- Emergency Medical Assistance: Dial 9-1-1
- Emergency Shelter: Locate options in your zip code by visiting the American Red Cross, or Salvation Army, or by texting the word “SHELTER” and your zip code to 4FEMA (43362). Para español, envíe la palabra “REFUGIO” y su código postal a 43362. You can also download the FEMA mobile application to find open shelters.
- Immediate Needs: Contact your local, city, county, and/or state emergency management agencies for help. The California Office of Emergency Services has resources for individuals and families here. The FEMA Helpline (800-621-3362 / TTY 800-462-7585) may be able to provide additional referrals.
5. What if you have insurance?
If you have an insurance policy that might apply after a disaster, you should file a claim with your insurance company when you apply for FEMA assistance. FEMA cannot aid with losses already covered by insurance. If your insurance does not cover all your losses (or your benefits have been delayed), you may be eligible for FEMA assistance.
6. Do you need a lawyer to get help from FEMA?
You do not need a lawyer to get disaster relief from FEMA. But an experienced lawyer can help you navigate the FEMA system, which may ease your mind while you deal with the aftermath of disaster.
An experienced disaster-relief lawyer will also help you determine if you may be entitled to additional compensation depending on the cause of the disaster. For example, in California, multiple catastrophic wildfires were caused by utility companies’ negligent and reckless practices. In those cases, trial lawyers at Singleton Schreiber have been able to recover millions of dollars in compensation for people who were injured, lost loved ones, or and whose properties were damaged or destroyed in the fires.
If you have questions about FEMA assistance, your insurance, or whether you might be entitled to additional compensation following a disaster, we invite you to reach out to one of the experienced disaster-relief lawyers at Singleton Schreiber for a free consultation.
 42 U.S.C. §§ 5121-5207 (Stafford Act § 401)
 44 C.F.R. § 206.36