On May 22,1974, President Richard Nixon signed the Disaster Relief Act of 1974, amending a 1970 version of the legislation. The act expanded the assistance the federal government could provide to individuals, states, and local communities suffering from disasters. Senator Quentin Burdick (D-ND) introduced S. 3062 on February 26, 1974. The bill passed as amended by 91-0 on April 10, 1974, and the House agreed to a conference report by a vote of 392 to 0 on May 15.
In 1950, Congress enacted the Federal Disaster Assistance Program, the first time the federal government was authorized to respond to major disasters, giving the President broad powers to respond to crises. After Hurricane Betsy in 1965 and Hurricane Camille in 1969, the Federal Disaster Assistance Administration was established at HUD, which provided housing and other forms of assistance to disaster survivors. Congress significantly extended the federal government’s disaster relief role by enacting the Disaster Relief Act of 1970 which expanded upon the 1950 Federal Disaster Assistance Program. In a signing statement about the Disaster Relief Act of 1974, President Nixon noted he had declared more than 180 major disasters in 42 states since becoming President in 1968.
The Disaster Relief Act of 1974 authorized the President to:
- Establish a program of disaster preparedness using the services of all appropriate federal agencies;
- Make grants for the development of plans and programs for disaster preparedness and prevention;
- Declare a major disaster at the request of a Governor;
- Make contributions to state or local governments to help repair or reconstruct public facilities;
- Make grants to help repair or reconstruct nonprofit educational, utility, emergency, and medical and custodial care facilities;
- Purchase or lease temporary housing, and provide temporary mortgage or rent payment assistance;
- Provide assistance to people unemployed as a result of the disaster;
- Provide additional relief, including food coupons and commodities, relocation assistance, legal services, and crisis counseling;
- Make grants to a state in order for the state to provide grants to individuals and families if assistance otherwise provided by the act is inadequate; and,
- Make loans to local governments suffering a substantial loss of tax and other revenues.
Critics noted that no single entity was responsible for coordinating the federal response to a major disaster. The National Governor's Association (NGA) sought to decrease the many agencies with which state and local governments had to work. NGA asked President Jimmy Carter to centralize federal emergency functions. Consequently, President Carter issued Executive Order 12127 on March 31, 1979, establishing the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), consolidating federal disaster-related responsibilities.
Even with the creation of FEMA, there were still many inefficiencies due to the growing number of agencies involved at both the state and federal levels. Consequently, Congress amended the Disaster Relief Act through passage of the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, signed into law on November 23, 1988. The Stafford Act created the system that is in place today.
The Stafford Act includes disaster housing and community development programs unique to FEMA such as the Individuals and Households Program (IHP), the Public Assistance for Permanent Work Program, the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, and the Pre-Disaster Mitigation program. HUD also has programs to aid in implementing disaster recovery assistance including,Federal Housing Administration (FHA) loans and forbearance policies, Public and Indian Housing resources, and the Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) and HOME Investment Partnerships programs. CDBG-DR is notably less targeted to lower income people than regular CDBG.
Other resources for disaster housing include loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration that may cover uninsured or uncompensated losses of a home or personal property. The U.S. Department of Agriculture also provides disaster assistance to its jurisdictions. The U.S. Department of the Treasury has provided special Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC) and other tax incentives after major disasters.
Disaster recovery still requires improvements to ensure people can be adequately helped when disaster strikes. As recently seen in Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and Super Storm Sandy, disaster assistance will be continually put to the test. Legislation intended to fix some of the shortcomings in the Stafford Act was introduced in the 112th Congress by Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA). There has been little movement toward reforms to the Stafford Act in the 113th Congress. As recognized in 1974, disaster recovery requires strong, evolving policy that will be effective before, during, and after disasters occur.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency Publication 1, https://www.fema.gov/pdf/about/pub1.pdf
Federal Emergency Management Agency, http://www.fema.gov/about-agency
Richard Nixon, May 22 1974, “Statement About the Disaster Relief Act of 1974,” online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=4218
Executive Order 12127, http://www.archives.gov/federal-register/codification/executive-order/12127.html
“Disaster Housing,” 2014 NLIHC Advocates’ Guide, http://nlihc.org/sites/default/files/2014-Advocates-Guide.pdf
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