Proposed FEMA Rule Would Create Roadblocks for Presidential Disaster Declarations

FEMA announced a proposed rule on December 14 that would change the formula used by the agency to recommend the President issue disaster declarations. The “Disaster Reform and Recovery Act of 2018” requires FEMA to review its system for recommending disaster declarations, and the proposed rule would make it more difficult for many states to receive disaster declarations by requiring disasters inflict substantially more damage before FEMA resources may be approved.

Under current guidelines, FEMA examines 6 factors when deciding to recommend the President issue a major disaster declaration. The most significant factor is the disaster’s “cost of assistance” (COA). FEMA sets a baseline COA for each state every year by evaluating past disasters and the state population. When a disaster strikes, FEMA evaluates the damage to determine whether the COA for that specific disaster is above the minimum level. If it is, FEMA assumes the disaster is large enough in magnitude and devastation for state resources to be overwhelmed and federal resources to be necessary. FEMA will then typically recommend the President issue a disaster or major disaster declaration.

In the proposed rule, FEMA argues its major disaster declaration formula is flawed and does not accurately reflect when a disaster should be declared. FEMA is proposing instead to combine the baseline COA with a state’s total taxable revenue. Under this change, a state’s overall economy – not the economy of the area struck by the specific disaster – would be taken into account when determining the cost of disaster assistance.

Under this new system, places like California, New York, North Dakota, Washington, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Jersey would see an over 90% increase in their COA – meaning the damage needed to justify a major disaster declaration would have to be over 90% higher than before. A majority of states would see their baseline COAs increase by over 50%. Territories of the US, including Puerto Rico, would not be affected by this change due to incomplete data collection in these areas.

This rule would make it more difficult for less wealthy areas of large states, such as northern California, to receive disaster declarations. Beyond failing to receive FEMA assistance, these areas would also lose access to programs like the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG)-Disaster Relief program, which provides long-term recovery funding, the Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Program (D-SNAP), which temporarily increases food assistance benefits in disaster areas, as well as low interest recovery loans from the Small Business Administration and numerous additional programs that require disaster declarations to operate. NLIHC and the NLIHC-led Disaster Housing Recovery Coalition – a group of more than 850 local, state, and national organizations that advocate for low-income disaster survivors – will continue to analyze the effects of this potential rule and seek to prevent or mitigate the harm it could