FEMA’s reasons for a major disaster declaration don’t mention a pandemic

Cars wait at a federal Covid-19 testing facility in New Jersey.
Cars wait at a federal Covid-19 testing facility in New Jersey.
Image: K.C. Wilsey/FEMA/Handout via REUTERS
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Every US state is under a federal disaster declaration for the first time in history, after US president Donald Trump approved a declaration for Wyoming yesterday (April 11).

With the US Virgin Islands, the Northern Marina Islands, Washington DC, Guam, and Puerto Rico also covered by a major disaster declaration, American Samoa is now the sole remaining US territory to have not received one. The US overtook Italy yesterday as the country with the most recorded coronavirus deaths.

The US has recorded more than 20,000 deaths and more than 530,000 confirmed cases, a third of the known global total. The nation’s top epidemiologist Anthony Fauci today expressed “cautious optimism” that the outbreak is slowing in the US and that some parts of the country may begin to reopen in May.

A “major disaster declaration”—yes, this is a technical term—can be made by the US president when the response to an event exceeds the combined capabilities of state and local governments. It’s different from an emergency declaration; the White House made that announcement, which applies to the entire country, nearly a month ago.

The disaster declaration, typically requested by a governor before approval, gives the state or territory access to a broad range of FEMA disaster assistance programs. That could include crisis counseling and legal assistance for households, and emergency repairs to buildings, equipment, public utilities, and other infrastructure that may have been damaged in the disaster.

An irony, though: FEMA’s explanation of reasons why a president can declare a major disaster is focused almost entirely on weather-based disasters. It never mentions a pandemic, or any public health threat, for that matter. Here is the language from FEMA:

Major Disaster Declarations:  The President can declare a major disaster for any natural event, including any hurricane, tornado, storm, high water, wind-driven water, tidal wave, tsunami, earthquake, volcanic eruption, landslide, mudslide, snowstorm, or drought, or, regardless of cause, fire, flood, or explosion, that the President determines has caused damage of such severity that it is beyond the combined capabilities of state and local governments to respond.

Protecting public health is included as a reason why a president can declare an emergency, the other type of disaster declaration under the Stafford Act. An emergency declaration opens up more limited resources, for instance debris removal and emergency protective measures, but not permanent work on public utilities and infrastructure. That requires a major disaster declaration.

In other words, it’s not just all 50 US states being under a federal disaster declaration that’s unusual, but how the declaration is being applied in the first place. As The Atlantic wrote last month, “Shoehorning a pandemic into the Stafford Act’s definition of ‘major disaster’ is a stretch, at best…Trump is proposing to bend the law, no doubt to free up assistance that would only be available for major-disaster declarations. The ends might be worthy, but the means should give us pause.”