Climbing up the 9-Step Ladder of Disaster Declarations

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.

FEMA and ADEM monitor projects to make sure they’re completed.

The December storm had between 100 and 150 projects, Maxwell said, for an estimate of about $9 million in damage. That’s a “fairly small disaster,” he noted.

The ice storm of 2000, by comparison, cost upwards of $200 million, and the ice storm of 2008 that affected mainly the northern third of the state was larger than that.

“The ice storms are generally our biggest dollar-cost disasters,” Maxwell said.

Additionally, the U.S. Small Business Administration can provide loans to nonprofit organizations that provide essential services.

Individual and Mitigation

Individual aid has different criteria than the state’s public assistance.

“We work with local county judges and emergency managers to verify damages right after a storm happens,” said Scott Bass, director of ADEM’s disaster management division.

As of last year, ADEM determines individual assistance with a point system.

For example, if a storm-damaged house has simply had a few shingles sheared off the roof, its point value is zero. Minor damage is worth two points; major damage three; and a destroyed home is worth four.

A city has to reach 125 points before individual assistance can be implemented, Bass said, and that’s before insurance coverage is checked.

No cities exceeded 125 points during the December ice storms, he added. ADEM’s individual assistance usually provides from one to three months of rent and can provide grants for property loss.

Federal aid for individuals can provide temporary housing, repair grants, home replacement (rarely), new home construction grants and funds for other needs like medical, dental, funeral costs, etc.

Arkansas received $53 million in federal assistance for individuals between 2004 and 2011.

Individual assistance can also help businesses through SBA loans. The SBA can provide home, business and economic injury disaster loans. The latter can be issued to both small businesses and agricultural cooperatives.

The SBA provided $338,500 in disaster assistance loans to Arkansas during its past two fiscal years; most of this was for drought conditions.

Finally, mitigation funds are issued by the state or FEMA to help prevent future disasters.

“We might build a bridge higher or a culvert larger so it doesn’t wash out,” Maxwell said.

The federal government provided Arkansas with $50 million for hazard mitigation between 2004 and 2011.

Process for Federal Disaster Declaration

  1. Incident
  2. State collects initial damage estimates.
  3. Governor requests Joint Preliminary Damage Assessments (PDAs) from FEMA regional office.
  4. Joint federal/state/local/tribal PDAs are conducted in the areas requested by the state.
  5. Governor submits a request to the president through FEMA’s regional administrator for a major disaster or emergency declaration.  The request is based on PDA findings and specifies programs and counties for designation.
  6. Region reviews request and sends its recommendation to FEMA headquarters.
  7. FEMA headquarters reviews the state’s request and the region’s recommendations. The Declarations Unit prepares a White House package containing FEMA’s  recommendation to the president for the administrator’s signature.
  8. A draft White House package is emailed to the Department of Human Services secretary for review and approval for transmission to the White House.
  9. FEMA forwards the White House package to the president for decision.