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 CRS experts.
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. 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 to the 2017 disasters has been effectively led by FEMA and supported by other federal agencies. Congress can use after-action reports, like those after Hurricane Sandy, to inform oversight and reforms.
FEMA has multiple disaster assistance programs, including:
These 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 adjusted cost-shares for specific states and disasters, such as after the 2005 Gulf Coast hurricanes. Recent 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:
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. Reform ideas may be considered by Congress before these authorities expire.
FEMA's Disaster Relief Fund (DRF) is the primary funding source for immediate FEMA response and relief in the wake of disasters. As Hurricane Harvey approached 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 response needs. P.L. 115-56 provided $7.4 billion in supplemental appropriations for the DRF, and the continuing resolution in the act provided additional resources, so the funding restriction was lifted on October 2. $18.67 billion more was appropriated 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. The Administration submitted a third supplemental appropriations request on November 17, 2017, for $44 billion, including $23.5 billion for the DRF.
The NFIP was not designed to retain funding to cover claims for extreme events; instead, the law allows it to borrow money from the Treasury for such events. FEMA borrowed $5.285 billion from the Treasury to meet initial claims from Hurricane Harvey, and thus reached the borrowing limit of $30.425 billion. As the Administration requested, P.L. 115-72 cancelled $16 billion of NFIP debt, reducing 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.