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Natural Disasters of 2017: Congressional Considerations Related to FEMA Assistance

Changes from November 2, 2017 to December 6, 2017

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This Insight provides a short overview of issues Congress may consider in its oversight of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA's) federal assistance during the 2017 hurricane season (e.g., Harvey, Irma, and Maria) and other disasters (e.g., fires in California). For the current status of response efforts, see official government sources and news media. For additional support, please contact available CRS experts in disaster-related issue areas.

CRS experts.

Stafford Act Declarations and Response

Under the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (the Stafford Act), the President may declare an emergency or major disaster to authorize federal assistance, if the capacities of state and tribal governments are overwhelmed. Generally, emergency declarations help avert further catastrophes, whereas major disaster declarations address significant needs following eligible disasters. For example, in 2017, emergency declarations were made prior to the landfall of hurricanes, as well as to address the emerging threats of a possible dam failure in California. Major disaster declarations have been made for a wide range of disasters.

As authorized by numerous sections of the Stafford Act (e.g., §302) and the Homeland Security Act of 2002 (e.g., §504), FEMA is responsible for coordinating the federal disaster response, as guided by the National Response Framework and subcomponent policies. Many deployable federal assets have been used in responding to the 2017 disasters. Other federal agencies are frequently incorporated by, and compensated for, their federal response through Mission Assignments. Congress may evaluate whether the federal response support forto the 2017 disasters has been effectively led by FEMA and supported by other federal agencies, and if not, use forthcoming . Congress can use after-action reports (similar to those following previous disasters, such as, like those after Hurricane Sandy), to inform congressional oversight and possible reforms.

Federal Financial Assistance from FEMA

FEMA has multiple disaster assistance programs, including:

The aboveThese FEMA grant programs all have state cost-share requirements. PA cost-shares can be adjusted by the Administration, but IA and HMGP cost-shares are set in law. Congress has occasionally adjusted cost-shares for specific states and disasters, such as after the 2005 Gulf Coast hurricanes. Major disaster declarations for Florida, Puerto Rico, Texas, and U.S. Virgin Islands related to hurricanes in 2017 have all had cost-share adjustments for PARecent major disaster declarations have had various cost-share adjustments for PA. Congress may consider legislation to revise these programs, such as H.R. 4460, which was ordered reported from the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

FEMA also administers non-grant financial assistance:

  • The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) is the primary source of flood insurance coverage for residential properties in the United States. The. NFIP has implemented temporary changes to the claims process to allow policyholders to receive funds more quickly in some of the areas affected by floods in 20172017 floods. However, past data on participation rates suggest that many properties in the SpecialSpecial Flood Hazard Areas (SFHAs) that have been affected by the hurricanes may not have flood insurance. By law, federal assistance to the owners of these uninsured properties is more restricted than to the owners of properties with insurance or those living outside the SFHA.
  • Key provisions of the NFIP were reauthorized through December 8, 2017 (P.L. 115-56, Division D, §130). OMB has requested revisions to the NFIP. These and other reformReform ideas may be considered by Congress before expiration of these authorities.
  • these authorities expire. The Community Disaster Loan (CDL) Program provides loan assistance to governments to compensate for the loss of tax and other revenues following disasters. Recent provisos in appropriations for CDLs afford discretion to the Trump Administration in providing these loanspost-disaster loss of revenues. Recent appropriations provisos for CDLs afford the Administration discretion to provide CDLs, so past guidance on CDLs may not apply to future loans. Historically, these loans have frequently been forgiven.

Funding for FEMA Assistance


FEMA's Disaster Relief Fund (DRF) is the primary funding source for immediate FEMA response and relief provided by FEMA in the wake of disasters. As Hurricane Harvey approached the Texas coast on August 25, 2017, the DRF had approximately $3.5 billion on hand. On August 28, FEMA implemented an "immediate needs funding restriction," limiting obligations from the DRF for some longer-term recovery and mitigation projects to preserve DRF balances for immediate response needs. P.L. 115-56 provided $7.4 billion in supplemental appropriations for the DRF were provided through P.L. 115-56, and the continuing resolution in the act provided additional resources.  As a result,, so the funding restriction was lifted on October 2, 2017. $18.67 billion more was appropriated for the DRF in P.L. 115-72, although a $4.9 billion transfer to the Disaster Assistance Direct Loan Program account (which funds CDLs) and a $10 million transfer to the DHS Office of Inspector General reduced the effective appropriation to $13.76 billion. AThe Administration submitted a third supplemental appropriations request on November 17, 2017, for $44 billion, including $23.5 billion for the DRF. request is expected from the White House in November.

The NFIP was not designed to retain funding to cover claims for truly extreme events; instead, the law allows the Programit to borrow money from the Treasury for such events. FEMA borrowed $5.285 billion from the Treasury to meet initial claims from Hurricane Harvey, whichand thus reached the borrowing limit of $30.425 billion. As requested by the Administration requested, , P.L. 115-72 will cancel cancelled $16 billion of NFIP debt, reducing the NFIP debt to $14.425 billion.

it to $14.425 billion. FEMA borrowed another $6.1 billion on November 9, bringing the debt to $20.525 billion. The NFIP currently has $9.9 billion of remaining borrowing authority.