Understanding FEMA and the Stafford Act

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Department of Homeland Security logo on a federal building


In disaster recovery, the relationship and interaction between FEMA and the 50 states is critically important and based on state sovereignty concepts defined when the U.S. Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution. Federal disaster assistance is intended to supplement — not replace — state, local, and private-sector resources. In almost all cases, states must formally request federal assistance after determining that the disaster response exceeds local capabilities.

Established in 1988, the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act creates the formal system that allows FEMA to provide disaster assistance to states after presidential disaster declarations or emergency declarations.

Under the act, FEMA administers and coordinates funding and disaster response activities after a presidential disaster declaration. The act encourages states and localities to:

  • Develop comprehensive disaster preparedness plans.
  • Achieve better intergovernmental coordination in a disaster.
  • Protect themselves by obtaining insurance coverage.
  • Encourage hazard mitigation measures.
  • Provide federal assistance programs for both public and private losses.

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