The Complexities of Disaster Response Funding

by Courtney Colburn

In recent months, the world experienced a seemingly unending sequence of disasters, hurricanes, earthquakes, and wildfires, many of them impacting the US or US territories. Disasters are experienced at the local level, but have national impacts due to the amount of people affected, and the amount of funding that disaster response requires.

However, not all disasters receive federal funding. For a disaster to receive federal funding, it must move through the ladder of response and funding requests. First, the local government turns to their state government to ask for assistance. After receiving the request for assistance, the state government can provide resources as they are able and can request federal assistance. There are two different types of federal assistance a state can ask for: a Major Disaster Declaration or additional assistance from specific federal agencies. A major Disaster Declaration falls under the purvey of the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act of 1988, which brings in the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to help respond to the disaster. It allows for coordination of response at the federal, local, and state level. The Act designate three possible types of assistance the federal government can provide: individual assistance (immediate grants to individuals), hazard mitigation (grants to governments to mitigate against future disasters), and public assistance (used for a wide array of individuals and organizations).

Whether a disaster moves up the ladder of funding requests will depend on many factors, including but not limited to whether the local government has the capacity to respond, the number of people impacted, and the estimated cost of the damage. Historically, communities struck by hurricanes have received the most federal funding packages, while wildfires, earthquakes, and floods have resulted in smaller federal funding packages. Federal disaster response funds can also be used to respond to terrorist attacks, pandemics, and other large scale events.


Hurricane Fran, 1996

Although FEMA is the most prominent agency involved in disaster response, there are 17 different agencies that are involved, including those as diverse as the Small Business Administration (SBA), the the Department of Labor (DOL), and the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Each agency is involved in a way that relates to their mission. The SBA provides disaster loans to small business owners and homeowners to help cover the costs of repair. The Department of Labor’s largest disaster response program is the Disaster Unemployment Assistance, which aims to assist those who have lost their jobs due to the disaster. HUD administers a Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery Program provided to governments at the city, county, and state level to recover from disasters. In the Harvey funding package, the SBA received $450 million for its disaster loan program and HUD received $7.4 billion for its community development block grant. The other agencies involved administer similarly large programs to help those impacted by a disaster.

Disasters destroy people’s lives and responding to a disaster is complex as there are many levels of government, many different agencies, and many sources of funding involved. The long-term implications of a disaster on people’s lives can be devastating. Responding to the disaster in terms of immediate assistance and long-term funding is a complicated process for the federal government and obtaining the assistance is a complicated process for those impacted by disaster.


Courtney Colburn is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the Goldman School of Public Policy.