Climbing up the 9-Step Ladder of Disaster Declarations

by Luke Jones  on Monday, Mar. 18, 2013 12:00 am  

David Maxwell

December’s ice storms caused millions of dollars of property damage across multiple counties. The situation was dire enough that Arkansas called on the federal government to help clean up the mess.

So what exactly happens when a disaster is declared?

The process starts at the city and county level. For the state to declare an emergency, cost of damage in a county has to reach more than $2 per capita. The Arkansas Department of Emergency Management paid about $20 million in disaster assistance through 2010-11, according to its annual report released in July 2012.

If the damage looks bad enough, the state can request federal assistance. It’s not easy, though.

“Disasters are getting harder and harder to come by,” said ADEM Director David Maxwell. “They’re being very cautious at looking at all that.”

A U.S. Government Accountability Organization study released last September found that, between 2004 and 2011, Arkansas had asked for federal assistance 15 times and it had received $557 million in disaster relief funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Depending on whether the criteria included 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, Arkansas had either the 14th or the 15th highest fund obligation per person at $208.

In any case, the December storm damage exceeded the state’s aid threshold by three times. President Barack Obama declared an emergency on Jan. 29.

Types of Declarations

When a disaster is declared either by the governor or president, it can be for public assistance, individual assistance, disaster mitigation or a combination of the three. The ice storm declaration, for example, included only public assistance.

Public assistance funds are specifically for governmental entities and typically go toward restoring public infrastructure. For a state-level disaster declaration, ADEM can’t pay more than 35 percent of the actual cleanup cost, and cities or counties must make up the rest.

For federal disasters, FEMA and ADEM work together to divide areas into separate “projects.” For a smaller project, $250,000 or less, FEMA can simply write a check, Maxwell said.

For a larger project, he added, FEMA pays 75 percent of the costs, while ADEM pays 12.5 percent and the rest is picked up by the city or county affected. FEMA gave Arkansas $372 million in public assistance between 2004 and 2011.



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