Stafford Act Assistance for Public Health Incidents

This Insight provides a brief overview of Stafford Act declarations under the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (hereinafter the Stafford Act—42 U.S.C. 5721 et seq.) and the types of assistance that could be authorized in response to public health incidents in general, and infectious disease incidents such as the Zika virus outbreak in particular. This Insight also provides examples of Stafford Act declarations that have been previously issued to address such incidents.


The Stafford Act authorizes the President to issue two types of declarations that could provide federal assistance to states and localities in response to a public health incident: a "major disaster declaration" or an "emergency declaration."

Major Disaster Declarations

Major disaster declarations authorize a wide range of federal assistance to states, local governments, tribal nations, individuals and households, and certain nonprofit organizations to recover from catastrophic incidents. Major disaster declarations must be requested by the state governor or tribal leader. The Stafford Act defines a major disaster as:

any natural catastrophe (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, any fire, flood, or explosion, in any part of the United States, which in the determination of the President causes damage of sufficient severity and magnitude to warrant major disaster assistance under this chapter to supplement the efforts and available resources of states, local governments, and disaster relief organizations in alleviating the damage, loss, hardship, or suffering caused thereby (42 U.S.C. §5122(2)).

The list of events that qualify for a major disaster declaration is specific. There is no precedent for a major disaster declaration in response to a public health incident of any type, including infectious disease outbreaks, and it is unclear if such an incident would be eligible for a major disaster declaration.

Major Disaster Declaration Assistance

Assistance generally takes three forms: Public Assistance (PA), Individual Assistance (IA) and Hazard Mitigation Assistance (HMA). PA addresses essential needs of the state or tribe in response to an incident, including repairing damage to public infrastructure (public roads, buildings, etc.). IA helps families and individuals and can include temporary housing assistance and grants to address post-disaster needs (such as replacing clothing and furniture) as well as crisis counseling and disaster unemployment benefits. HMA provides the state with grant funding for state-identified mitigation projects.

Emergency Declarations

By comparison with a major disaster declaration, considerably less assistance is authorized under an emergency declaration. Emergency is defined more broadly than major disaster—which arguably may allow for greater eligibility of public health incidents. The Stafford Act defines an emergency as:

any occasion or instance for which, in the determination of the President, federal assistance is needed to supplement State and local efforts and capabilities to save lives and to protect property and public health and safety, or to lessen or avert the threat of a catastrophe in any part of the United States (P.L. 93-288, 42 U.S.C. §5122(1)).

Emergency declarations can be issued before an incident when a threat is detected (for example, before a hurricane makes landfall or a river crests) to supplement and coordinate local and state response efforts. As traditionally implemented, the Stafford Act, however, does not supplant or supersede other federal authorities directed at public health incidents, such as those exercised by the Secretary of Health and Human Services.

Emergency Declaration Assistance

Emergency assistance can include two forms of PA; debris removal and emergency protective measures. Most assistance related to public health incidents has been delivered through emergency protective measures, which includes activities that are necessary to reduce an immediate threat to life, public health, or safety. Some forms of IA can be made available through an emergency declaration. Emergency declarations do not include HMA assistance.

Stafford Act Emergency Declarations for Public Health Incidents

Since the 1960s, the Stafford Act has been used sporadically for public health incidents. Some examples include the 1962 Louisiana and Mississippi chlorine barge accident and the evacuation of the New York Love Canal Chemical site in 1978. In the case of Zika virus response, the government's planning assumption is that there would not be a Stafford Act declaration. Below are examples of other emergency declarations for public health incidents since the 1990s.

West Nile Virus: New York and New Jersey

On October 11 and November 1, 2000, President Clinton issued emergency declarations for New York and New Jersey respectively to supplement state efforts to address the threat of the West Nile virus, a mosquito-borne virus. The assistance included state reimbursement of mosquito abatement eligible under the PA Program. These are the only instances of a Stafford Act declaration in response to an infectious disease incident.

West Virginia Chemical Spill

On January 10, 2014, President Obama issued an emergency declaration for the West Virginia chemical spill. The declaration helped deliver potable water and provided technical assistance to West Virginia State emergency management staff.

Flint, Michigan Water Contamination

On January 16, 2016, President Obama issued an emergency declaration for the State of Michigan for the Flint water contamination incident. The declaration provided water, water filters, water filter cartridges, water test kits, and other necessary related items.

For More Information

See CRS Report R43784, FEMA's Disaster Declaration Process: A Primer, FEMA's Disaster Declaration Process: A Primer; CRS Report R43990, FEMA's Public Assistance Grant Program: Background and Considerations for Congress; and CRS Report R42702, Stafford Act Declarations 1953-2014: Trends, Analyses, and Implications for Congress, for a complete background and details about Stafford Act Declarations.