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.
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 for the 2017 disasters has been effectively led by FEMA and supported by other federal agencies, and if not, use forthcoming after-action reports (similar to those following previous disasters, such as Hurricane Sandy) to inform congressional oversight and possible reforms.
FEMA has multiple disaster assistance programs, including:
The above 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 PA.
FEMA also administers non-grant financial assistance:
FEMA's Disaster Relief Fund (DRF) is the primary funding source for immediate 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. $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, 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. A third supplemental appropriations 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 Program to borrow money from the Treasury for such events. FEMA borrowed $5.285 billion from the Treasury to meet initial claims from Hurricane Harvey, which reached the borrowing limit of $30.425 billion. As requested by the Administration, P.L. 115-72 will cancel $16 billion of NFIP debt, reducing the NFIP debt to $14.425 billion.