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Disaster Accounting: The Reality of Federal Disaster Aid

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Thomas E. Poulin
April 24, 2023

Every day emergencies and disasters impact communities across the nation. Recently, we have experienced a rash of tornadoes across large swaths of the country. In the media, we see and hear comments asking why the federal government does not provide greater financial and response support more rapidly. The reality is many in the federal government would prefer to do so, but they are constrained by existing laws. Unfortunately, federal disaster policy was not, at its core, crafted to provide for response and recovery. It was designed by Congress, at the behest of the state and local leadership of the time, to control costs and limit federal “intrusion” into state matters.

History of Federal Disaster Aid

The history of federal disaster aid is reflective of our constitutional separation of powers between state and federal governments. Disaster aid is not specifically mentioned within the Constitution and consequently federal disaster aid has been sporadic and an exception to the rule. For nearly 200 years, the federal government’s assistance during and after a disaster was limited and fragmented. Locally based federal officials often provided limited support as an extension of their mission as an independent, discretionary action. Congress often enacted a message of sympathy and support, but provided nothing of substance. Between 1803 and 1950, Congress passed 128 specific acts to provide support after a disaster, with each act focusing on a specific event. This changed in 1950, with the enactment of the Federal Disaster Relief Act, providing a standardized approach for limited supplemental federal disaster assistance. It was a major step in bringing the federal government into the disaster response and recovery model, but it was limited, and these limitations were made manifest during many disasters including hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, wildfires and civil unrest. By the early 1970s, there was a growing consensus that the federal government needed to play a more active role.

The Stafford Act

In 1974, Congress passed the Disaster Relief Act, expanding the Federal Disaster Relief Act of 1950 by integrating changes already informally enacted within federal agencies, and providing new elements to fill the perceived gaps in the disaster response and recovery model. The 1974 act was amended in 1988, newly titled the Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, more commonly known as the Robert T. Stafford Act. This became the guiding legislation for federal assistance. The act has been amended several times since then, and further contextualized by other federal laws and initiatives within federal agencies. This column focuses primarily on the Stafford Act’s deliberate use of the word “assistance” in the title of the legislation. A misunderstanding of the intent of this law has created the myth in the minds of many in the country that it supports an unlimited federal response.

Myth versus Reality

Except during exceptional circumstances such as a foreign invasion or other form of extreme crisis, the federal government is not the lead agency. The disaster policy in the United States holds that all crises are local issues. As needed, when requested, the federal government shall assist the state governments; officially, federal agencies do not work directly with local governments. This framework was developed and is maintained as a means of maintaining state control. It limits the ability of federal agencies to become directly involved in many matters. The Stafford Act requires disaster assistance requests to be specific, detailed and typically supported by financial damage estimates. This was to prevent the unnecessary expenditure of federal funds outside the normal budget process, unless absolutely justified by circumstances. As one former administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency stated, the Stafford Act is not an emergency response plan, but instead a financial fraud prevention law. Consequently, it is difficult to build a rapid, flexible, fully supportive response when the disaster policy focuses primarily on financial control, sound accounting principles and limited government.

This is the reality of disaster policy in the United States. In his book, Speaking Truth to Power: Art and Craft of Policy Analysis, Aaron Wildavsky wrote “If there is no solution, there is no problem.” His narrative suggested if the policy environment limits our ability to function in a certain manner, we are left only with the options to either change the policy environment so the policy might subsequently be changed, or to work within the existing policy. The nation has changed greatly since 1974 when the current foundations of this disaster policy were established. The population has grown. We are more reliant on an infrastructure supporting transportation, communications, energy and other areas vital to a modern, functioning society. Public administrators, particularly those in emergency management, have performed remarkably well in acting within the constraints of current policy, but concerns still arise during each event. Given the comments made by many in the aftermath of each disaster, it might be time to revisit these policies to determine if they meet the needs and expectations of society today and into the future.

Author: Thomas E. Poulin, PhD, IPMA-CP is a training and development consultant and serves as Senior Doctoral Adjunct Faculty at Grand Canyon University. He is Past President of the Hampton Roads Chapter of ASPA. Prior to this, he served over 30 years in local government and 10 years as a university professor. He may be reached at [email protected]

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