The Disaster Relief Fund: Overview and Issues

The Disaster Relief Fund: Overview and Issues
November 13, 2020
The Disaster Relief Fund (DRF) is one of the most-tracked single accounts funded by
Congress each year. Managed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA),
William L. Painter
it is the primary source of funding for the federal government’s domestic general
Specialist in Homeland
disaster relief programs. These programs, authorized under the Robert T. Stafford
Security and
Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, as amended (42 U.S.C. 5121 et seq.),
Appropriations
outline the federal role in supporting state, local, tribal, and territorial governments as

they respond to and recover from a variety of incidents. They take effect in the event

that nonfederal levels of government find their own capacity to deal with an incident is
overwhelmed.
The appropriation which feeds the DRF predates current disaster relief programs and FEMA itself. It dates back to
a half-million dollar deficiency appropriation to the President in 1948 that allowed him to use these resources to
provide temporary emergency assistance to communities in the wake of unspecified potential natural disasters.
Although the appropriation was provided with one particular Upper Midwest flooding incident in mind, the
legislative language allowed the funding to be used more broadly if the President wished to do so. This policy of
providing general disaster relief was a shift from previous policy, which largely left emergency management,
disaster relief, and disaster recovery to other levels of government and private relief organizations. Prior to the
development of the general relief program, when the federal government involved itself in disaster response and
recovery, it was on an ad hoc, case-by-case basis. In the early 21st century, emergency management has its own
federal agency.
The evolving federal role in disaster relief is partially illuminated by the robust funding stream provided for it
through the DRF. At the end of FY2019, the DRF carried over a balance of more than $29 billion, and Congress
was considering the largest annual appropriation for disaster relief for the third year in a row. However, what is a
fixture of federal policy today was not a given a century ago. Examining the history of the DRF and the programs
it supports may help Congress consider future approaches to disaster relief.
This report introduces the DRF and provides a brief history of federal disaster relief programs. It goes on to
discuss the appropriations that fund the DRF, and provides a funding history from FY1964 to the present day,
discussing factors that contributed to those changing appropriations levels. It concludes with discussion of how
the budget request for the DRF has been developed and structured, given the unpredictability of the annual
budgetary impact of disasters, and raises some potential issues for congressional consideration.
This report is updated on an annual basis.

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Contents
Introduction ..................................................................................................................................... 1
What is the Disaster Relief Fund and how is it used? ............................................................... 1
What determines whether an incident qualifies as an emergency or disaster? ................... 1
Does all federally funded disaster relief come from the DRF? ................................................. 2
What federal government activities are funded under the DRF? ........................................ 2
Under what statute is the Disaster Relief Fund authorized? ..................................................... 3
Where are appropriations for the Disaster Relief Fund provided? ............................................ 4
Are specific Disaster Relief Fund appropriations for specific disasters? ........................... 4
How is the DRF being spent today? ................................................................................... 4
How is the DRF being used to respond to COVID-19? ...................................................... 4

Historical Context for Federal Disaster Relief Funding .................................................................. 5
1789-1947: Case by Case, After the Fact .................................................................................. 6
1947-1950: General Disaster Relief Funding from the Federal Government Begins ............... 8
1950-1966: The Disaster Relief Act of 1950—General Relief and Specific Relief .................. 9
1966-1974: The Disaster Relief Act of 1966—General Relief Broadens ............................... 10
1974-Present: The Era of Federally Coordinated Emergency Management ........................... 10

Pandemic COVID-19 and the Stafford Act ....................................................................... 12
Appropriations for General Disaster Relief ................................................................................... 13
Types of Appropriations for Disaster Relief............................................................................ 13
Supplemental Appropriations for Disaster Relief ............................................................. 13
Annual Appropriations ...................................................................................................... 14
Continuing Appropriations ................................................................................................ 15
DRF Funding History: FY1964-FY2020 ................................................................................ 16
Factors in Changing Appropriations Levels ............................................................................ 19
Incident Frequency and Severity ...................................................................................... 19
Programmatic Changes in Disaster Relief ........................................................................ 22
Changes in the Budget Process ......................................................................................... 23
Budgeting Practices for Disaster Relief ........................................................................................ 26
Management of Disaster Relief Funds .................................................................................... 26
1978: The Creation of the Federal Emergency Management Agency .............................. 26
Calculation of the Annual Appropriations Request ........................................................... 26
Emergency Contingency Funding and Reserve Funds ..................................................... 29
Rescissions and the DRF .................................................................................................. 30
Issues for Congress ........................................................................................................................ 31
Should the purpose of the DRF be rescoped? ......................................................................... 32
How much is enough to have on hand? ................................................................................... 33
What accommodations should be made in the federal budget for disaster relief? .................. 33


Figures
Figure 1. Nominal Dollar Disaster Relief Appropriations, FY1964-FY2020 ............................... 17
Figure 2. FY2020 Dollar Disaster Relief Appropriations, FY1964-FY2020 ................................ 18
Figure 3. Catastrophic Disaster Costs, DRF Appropriations and Obligations .............................. 22
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Figure 4. DRF Annual and Supplemental Appropriations Within and Beyond
Discretionary Spending Limits, FY2004-FY2020 ..................................................................... 25

Tables
Table 1. Disaster Declaration Activities and Projected Costs of Catastrophic Disaster
Declarations, FY2004-FY2019 .................................................................................................. 20

Table A-1. Nominal Dollar Disaster Relief Appropriations, FY1964-FY2020 ............................. 34
Table A-2. FY2020 Dollar Disaster Relief Appropriations, FY1964-FY2020 .............................. 36

Appendixes
Appendix. General Disaster Relief Appropriations, FY1964-FY2020 ......................................... 34

Contacts
Author Information ........................................................................................................................ 38

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The Disaster Relief Fund: Overview and Issues

Introduction
The Disaster Relief Fund (DRF) is one of the most-tracked single accounts funded by Congress
each year. Managed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), it is the primary
source of funding for the federal government’s domestic general disaster relief programs. These
programs, authorized under the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act,
as amended (42 U.S.C. 5121 et seq.), outline the federal role in supporting state, local, tribal, and
territorial governments as they respond to and recover from a variety of incidents. They take
effect in the event that nonfederal levels of government find their capacities to deal with an
incident overwhelmed.
Although the concept of general disaster relief provided by the federal government predates both
FEMA and the Stafford Act, federal involvement in relief after natural and man-made disasters
was very rare before the Civil War and was at times considered unconstitutional. Domestic
disaster relief efforts became more common after the Civil War, but were not seen as a necessary
obligation of the federal government. Standing federal domestic disaster relief programs and a
pool of resources to fund them only emerged after the Second World War. Prior to the
development of these programs, domestic disaster relief and recovery was a matter for private
nongovernmental organizations and state and local governments.
Once established, the federal role in domestic disaster response and recovery grew, proving
politically popular and resilient despite periodic concerns about management, execution, and
budgetary impacts. The DRF is the source of funding for most general disaster relief programs, so
it is an indicator of the scope of those programs and the volume of taxpayer-funded aid they
provide. Understanding the trends in the growth of the federal government’s role in general
disaster relief and recovery, and the associated costs of that role, may be useful as Congress
considers changes in both emergency management and budgetary policies.
This report introduces the DRF and provides a brief history of federal disaster relief programs. It
goes on to discuss the appropriations that fund the DRF, and provides a funding history from
FY1964 to the present day, discussing factors that contributed to those changing appropriations
levels. It concludes with discussion of how the budget request for the DRF has been developed
and structured, given the unpredictability of the annual budgetary impact of disasters, and raises
some potential issues for congressional consideration.
What is the Disaster Relief Fund and how is it used?
The DRF is the primary source of funding for the federal government’s general disaster relief
program—response and recovery activities pursuant to a range of domestic emergencies and
disasters defined in law—as opposed to specific relief and recovery initiatives that may be
enacted for individual incidents.
What determines whether an incident qualifies as an emergency or disaster?
Under the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (P.L. 93-288, as
amended; hereinafter “the Stafford Act”), the President can declare that an emergency exists or a
major disaster is occurring.1 These declarations make state, tribal, territorial, and local

1 Or has occurred—declarations are specific by time and place.
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governments2 eligible for a variety of assistance programs, many of which are funded from the
DRF.3 Declarations usually are made at the request of a state, tribal, or territorial government.
Does all federally funded disaster relief come from the DRF?
While the DRF funds Stafford Act disaster relief and recovery programs, several other federal
departments and agencies have significant roles in disaster preparedness, relief, recovery, and
mitigation. These include the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Small
Business Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the
Department of Health and Human Services. While FEMA may fund some of their activities out of
the DRF through mission assignments,4 their broader disaster-related programs are funded
through separate appropriations.5
What federal government activities are funded under the DRF?
Currently, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) coordinates federal disaster
response and recovery efforts. As such, it manages the DRF, which funds activities in five
categories:
1. Activity pursuant to a major disaster declaration—This activity represents the
vast majority of spending from the DRF. FEMA’s primary “Direct Disaster
Programs” are the Individual Assistance (IA),6 Public Assistance (PA),7 and the
Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP) programs.8 Federal assistance
provided by other federal agencies at FEMA’s direction through “mission
assignments” is also paid for from the DRF.9
2. Predeclaration surge activities—These are activities undertaken prior to an
emergency or major disaster declaration to prepare for response and recovery,
such as deploying response teams or prepositioning equipment.

2 As well as certain private nonprofit organizations as stipulated in the Stafford Act.
3 For more information, see CRS Report R43784, FEMA’s Disaster Declaration Process: A Primer, by Bruce R.
Lindsay.
4 Mission assignments are directives from FEMA to other federal agencies to perform specific work in response to a
Stafford Act emergency or disaster declaration. The federal agency can seek reimbursement from FEMA for the costs
incurred. For information on how FEMA manages these activities, see https://www.fema.gov/federal-agencies/mission-
assignments.
5 For information on the breadth of federal disaster relief, see CRS Report R41981, Congressional Primer on
Responding to and Recovering from Major Disasters and Emergencies
, by Bruce R. Lindsay and Elizabeth M.
Webster; and U.S. Government Accountability Office, Federal Disaster Assistance: Federal Departments and Agencies
Obligated at Least $277.6 Billion during Fiscal Years 2005 through 2014, GAO-16-797, September 22, 2016,
https://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-16-797.
6 For more information, see CRS Report R45085, FEMA Individual Assistance Programs: In Brief, by Shawn Reese.
7 For more information, see CRS Report R43990, FEMA’s Public Assistance Grant Program: Background and
Considerations for Congress
, by Jared T. Brown and Daniel J. Richardson.
8 For more information, see CRS Report R40471, FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program: Overview and Issues,
by Natalie Keegan.
9 Department of Homeland Security, Disaster Relief Fund, Fiscal Year 2019 Congressional Budget Justification,
Federal Emergency Management Agency, Washington, DC, February 2018, p. FEMA-DRF-23, https://www.dhs.gov/
sites/default/files/publications/Federal%20Emergency%20Management%20Agency.pdf.
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3. Activity pursuant to an emergency declaration—This is federal assistance to
supplement state and local efforts in providing emergency services in any part of
the United States.
4. Fire Management Assistance Grants (FMAGs) for large wildfires—This is
assistance for the mitigation, management, and control of any fires on public or
private lands that could, if unchecked, worsen and result in a major disaster
declaration.10
5. Disaster Readiness and Support (DRS) activities—These are ongoing, non-
incident specific activities that allow FEMA to provide timely disaster response,
operate its programs responsively and effectively, and provide oversight of its
emergency and disaster programs.
The role of the federal government has evolved over the years, as described in the sections below,
but emergency response and disaster relief has historically been a federalized “bottom-up”
operation, starting from the local or tribal governments affected, backed up by the state or
territorial government,11 and then turning to the federal government if their capacity is
overwhelmed. The broadening of the federal role has been a factor in which activities are funded
under the DRF.
DRF Activities and Statutory Budget Controls
Implementation of budget controls in 2011 led to changes in the way DRF appropriations were structured to
support Stafford Act activities. Since FY2012, the first fiscal year of statutory limits on discretionary spending
under the Budget Control Act (BCA), a distinction has been made between budget authority for the activities
pursuant to a specific major disaster declaration—the first of the activities listed above—and budget authority for
other activities. The former now often carries a special “disaster relief” designation, defining it as being provided
pursuant to a major disaster declaration under the Stafford Act, and includes language triggering an adjustment in
discretionary spending limits to accommodate it. Budget authority for the other four activities, covering other
Stafford Act functions not linked to response and recovery from a specific major disaster, is derived from the
undesignated portion, referred to as the “base.” This remaining budget authority is counted against discretionary
spending limits.
There is no direct limit in the plain language of the appropriation that would restrict “base” funds from being used
for major disasters. However, under concepts of appropriations law intended to prevent the executive branch
from improperly augmenting funding for specific activities beyond Congress’s intention, the designation of part of
the DRF as for the costs of major disasters can be interpreted as a limitation that prevents the rest of the DRF
from being used for that purpose. During the response to Hurricane Harvey in 2017, funds were reprogrammed
from the base to cover the costs of major disaster response, then replenished afterwards.
The statutory discretionary budget limits laid out in the BCA and the disaster relief adjustment mechanisms wil
expire after FY2021 under current law.
Under what statute is the Disaster Relief Fund authorized?
The DRF is not separately authorized as a distinct entity, but the activities it funds are authorized
under the Stafford Act (42 U.S.C. 5121 et seq.).

10 For more information, see CRS Report R43738, Fire Management Assistance Grants: Frequently Asked Questions,
by Bruce R. Lindsay and Katie Hoover.
11 Tribal governments currently may seek help directly from FEMA if their capacity to respond to an incident is
overwhelmed, as a result of changes to the Stafford Act made by Section 1110 of the Sandy Recovery Improvement
Act of 2013 (P.L. 113-2, Division B).
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Where are appropriations for the Disaster Relief Fund provided?
Since FY1980—FEMA’s first annual appropriation—the DRF has been funded through its own
appropriation within FEMA’s budget, first under the heading “Disaster Relief,” and then
“Disaster Relief Fund” starting in FY2012. FEMA’s annual appropriations were first provided
through the VA, HUD, and Independent Agencies Appropriations Act, but have been included in
the Department of Homeland Security Appropriations act since FY2004. Since the first “Disaster
Relief” appropriation for FY1948, most of the DRF’s appropriations have been provided through
supplemental appropriations. See Figure 1 and Figure 2 for details.
Are specific Disaster Relief Fund appropriations for specific disasters?
DRF appropriations have historically been provided for general disaster relief, rather than specific
presidentially declared disasters or emergencies.
The most recent iterations of the appropriations bill text indicate the funds are provided for the
“necessary expenses in carrying out the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency
Assistance Act,” thus covering all past and future disaster and emergency declarations.12 Previous
versions of the appropriations language going back to 1950 also referenced the legislation
authorizing general disaster relief rather than targeting specific disasters. On a number of
occasions, specific disasters have been mentioned in the appropriation, but funding was not
specifically directed to one disaster over others.
While many disaster supplemental appropriations bills are associated with a specific incident or
incidents—such as P.L. 113-2, “the Sandy Supplemental”—the language in that act does not limit
the use of the disaster relief appropriation to that specific incident.13
How is the DRF being spent today?
Since the enactment of P.L. 112-74, Congress has received regular reporting on spending from the
DRF. Monthly reports on such spending since March 2013 are available on FEMA’s website.14
Currently, the reports include information on DRF balances, actual and projected obligations from
the DRF for large-scale disasters broken down by disaster declaration, and obligations and
expenditures aggregated by incident. These reports also include estimates of the DRF balance
through the end of the current fiscal year.
How is the DRF being used to respond to COVID-19?
With the COVID-19 response, major disaster assistance programs under the Stafford Act
authorities are being used for the first time to respond to an infectious disease outbreak.15
On March 13, 2020, President Donald J. Trump made a series of emergency declarations under
Section 501(b) of the Stafford Act in response to the nationwide spread of a novel coronavirus

12 P.L. 115-141, Div. F.
13 See, for this specific example, 127 Stat. 28.
14 These monthly reports are available at https://www.fema.gov/media-library/assets/documents/31789.
15 Two emergency declarations under the Stafford Act were made in the fall of 2000 for West Nile virus control.
However, the difference in scale is significant: for example, New Jersey received $2.36 million for West Nile from the
DRF in 2000 (according to the Emergency Management Section of the New Jersey State Police), and $1,978 million
under the COVID-19 disaster declaration from the DRF as of the end of FY2020 (according to FEMA’s October 2020
monthly report on the DRF).
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disease (COVID-19).16 The declarations authorized assistance to all U.S. states, territories, tribes,
and the District of Columbia. At the time he announced the declarations, he invited the recipients
of those declarations to request major disaster declarations.17 FEMA notes that 50 states, five
territories, and the District of Columbia have all requested and received major disaster
declarations for COVID-19 response.18
Later that month, a supplemental appropriation for the DRF was provided in the CARES Act, P.L.
116-136, Division B, providing $45 billion in emergency-designated supplemental appropriations.
As with other DRF appropriations, this funding was not directed specifically to COVID-19
efforts, but for Stafford Act activities generally, including those related to COVID-19.
On August 8, 2020, the Administration announced a “lost wages assistance” program, which
would expand and extend unemployment benefits for several weeks. This initiative would use the
Other Needs Assistance program under the Individual Assistance programs under the Stafford
Act.19 More than $41 billion was obligated for this program in the closing months of FY2020—
more than three-quarters of the DRF obligations related to COVID-19.20
As of the end of FY2020, FEMA associated $52.681 billion in DRF spending with the COVID-19
response.21 Of this amount, $42.143 billion was provided through the Individual Assistance
program, the vast majority of which was for the lost wages initiative. $6.058 billion was provided
for Public Assistance programs, which reimburses eligible public and nonprofit entities for the
costs of major disaster response and recovery, and another $4.319 billion supported operational
costs, including mission assignments.
Historical Context for Federal Disaster Relief
Funding
Disaster relief has not always been a part of the mission of the federal government. For nearly 80
years, federal domestic disaster relief was minimal, extremely narrow in scope, and largely did
not address humanitarian needs, leaving those to private organizations and local levels of
government. Even as the country emerged from the Civil War with more of a national identity and
a sense that the federal government could act to provide relief in some circumstances, disaster aid
remained limited, responding only after the fact on a case-by-case basis. Only after World War II
did the concept emerge of a federal role in responding to disasters. This new role was more
broadly defined, led by the President and funded in advance, as opposed to case-by-case
responses to needs in the wake of the most severe events led by ad hoc congressional action. Over
the ensuing years, the general disaster relief program and its funding grew, expanding concepts of
assistance once reserved for catastrophic events to address more common natural disasters. In the

16 While the president made a single announcement, the declarations themselves apply to each individual state,
territory, or tribe.
17 https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/letter-president-donald-j-trump-emergency-determination-stafford-
act/
18 https://www.fema.gov/disasters/coronavirus/disaster-declarations, as retrieved October 15, 2020. FEMA also notes
that 32 tribes are working with FEMA under the emergency declarations.
19 For more information on the Lost Wages Assistance program, see CRS Insight IN11492, COVID-19: Supplementing
Unemployment Insurance Benefits (Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation vs. Lost Wages Assistance)
, by
Katelin P. Isaacs and Julie M. Whittaker.
20 Federal Emergency Management Agency, Disaster Relief Fund: Monthly Report, October 9, 2020, pp. 13, 25,
https://www.fema.gov/about/reports-and-data/disaster-relief-fund-monthly-reports.
21 Ibid., p. 13.
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1970s, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was established, institutionalizing
the federal role in disaster response, recovery, mitigation, and preparedness—the role we
recognize today. At the heart of that role is the set of relief programs that have evolved since the
1940s, known collectively as the Stafford Act, which are funded by the Disaster Relief Fund
appropriation.
1789-1947: Case by Case, After the Fact
The Constitution provides little specific direction on the question of how the United States should
confront disasters. While allusions to the intent of the Constitution speak to promoting domestic
tranquility and the general welfare, limitations on the federal role in state affairs combined with
the balance of national priorities and federal resources constrained federal involvement in disaster
relief and recovery in the early years of the country.
The federal government did provide disaster relief on some occasions. Some observers note at
least 128 instances from 1803 to 1947 when natural disasters prompted the federal government to
provide some type of ad hoc relief on a case-by-case basis for specific incidents after they
occurred.22 Prior to the Civil War, these measures largely consisted of refunds of duties paid on
goods destroyed in customs house fires, allowances for delayed payments of bonds, and land
grants for resettlement.23
Proponents of disaster relief argued that the “general welfare” clause of the Constitution
warranted the federal role in disaster relief.24 Opponents did not find this justification convincing,
as it was nonspecific,25 and argued that certain natural disasters (such as flooding of the
Mississippi River) were foreseeable, and therefore state and local governments had an obligation
to be prepared.26 They also contended that it was improper for the government to provide relief
for specific places with money it collected for the common good;27 and that the federal
government could not afford to provide universal relief. As the U.S. economy became more
robust, federal revenues grew, weakening the position of those in Congress who opposed a federal
role in disaster assistance on the basis of the lack of such resources.
Congressional willingness to provide assistance was not always sufficient to ensure its provision,
however. In 1887, President Grover Cleveland vetoed a bill that would have provided $10,000 to
pay for seeds for farmers in Texas after a drought, arguing as follows:
I can find no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution; and I do not believe
that the power and duty of the General Government ought to be extended to the relief of
individual suffering which is in no manner properly related to the public service or benefit.
A prevalent tendency to disregard the limited mission of this power and duty should, I

22 Moss, David A., “Courting Disaster: The Transformation of Federal Disaster Policy Since 1803.” In The Financing
of Catastrophe Risk
, edited by Kenneth A. Froot, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999, p. 312.
23 A survey of customs duty relief and delayed payments on bonds can be found in the remarks of Rep. C. Johnson,
“New York Fire,” Congressional Globe 24, p. 136 (February 17, 1836).
24 Rep. Carleton Hunt, “Relief of Sufferers by Flood,” House debate, Congressional Record, vol. 15, part 3 (March 26,
1884), p. 2295.
25 Rep. Charles Napoleon Brumm, “Relief of Sufferers by Flood,” House debate, Congressional Record, vol. 15, part 3
(March 26, 1884), p. 2296.
26 Rep. William Whitney Rice, “Relief of Sufferers by Flood,” House debate, Congressional Record, vol. 15, part 3
(March 26, 1884), p. 2293.
27 Rep. Lewis Beach, “Relief of Sufferers by Flood,” House debate, Congressional Record, vol. 15, part 3 (March 26,
1884), p. 2295.
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think, be steadfastly resisted, to the end that the lesson should be constantly enforced that
though the people support the Government, the Government should not support the people.
The friendliness and charity of our countrymen can always be relied upon to relieve their
fellow-citizens in misfortune. This has been repeatedly and quite lately demonstrated.
Federal aid in such cases encourages the expectation of paternal care on the part of the
Government and weakens the sturdiness of our national character, while it prevents the
indulgence among our people of that kindly sentiment and conduct which strengthens the
bonds of a common brotherhood.28
Much of the disaster relief provided in this period was nongovernmental in nature. In 1881, Clara
Barton founded the American National Red Cross (ANRC),29 which provided disaster aid from
funds it raised from private sources. One year before a catastrophic earthquake struck San
Francisco in 1906, the incorporating legislation for the ANRC was revised to task the
organization with “mitigating the sufferings caused by pestilence, famine, fire, floods, and other
great national calamities, and to devise and carry on measures for preventing the same.”30 In the
days after the earthquake, President Theodore Roosevelt issued an appeal for assistance from the
public for the ANRC’s relief efforts:
In the face of so horrible and appalling a national calamity as that which has befallen San
Francisco, the outpouring of the nation’s aid should, as far as possible, be entrusted to the
American Red Cross, the national organization best fitted to undertake such relief work....
In order that this work may be well systematized and in order that the contributions, which
I am sure will flow in with lavish generosity, may be wisely administered, I appeal to the
people of the United States, to all cities, chambers of commerce, boards of trade, relief
committees and individuals to express their sympathy and render their aid by contributions
to the American Red Cross.31
While the federal government provided ad hoc response and recovery assistance to San Francisco,
the majority of the aid was provided through private means. Congress appropriated $2.5 million
in the days after the quake to the Secretary of War to provide “subsistence and quartermaster’s
supplies ... to such destitute persons as have been rendered homeless or are in needy
circumstances as a result of the earthquake and commissary stores to such injured and destitute
persons as may require assistance,”32 but nonfederal cash contributions to the ANRC and the local
relief organizations exceeded $9 million in the two years following the disaster.33
The ANRC served as the major institutional source of relief for disaster victims in the United
States, serving communities and individuals in cooperation with state and local governments with
relatively little direct contribution from the federal government for many years. The Red Cross
continued to play a leading role in nongovernmental disaster relief as the federal government’s
role in disaster aid evolved and expanded through the 20th century and into the 21st.

28 House bill 10203, 50th Congress. Richardson, James D. (compiler), Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the
Presidents
(1897), Volume 11, page 5142.
29 This is the formal legal name of the organization commonly referred to as the American Red Cross.
30 P.L. 58-4, 23 Stat. 600.
31 Red Cross Flyer, Library of Congress Manuscript Division, made available through the Theodore Roosevelt Digital
Library (www.theordorerooseveltcenter.org) at http://www.theodoreroosevelt.org/Research/Digital-Library/Record?
libID=o529079.
32 Public Resolution No. 16, April 19, 1906, 34 Stat. 827.
33 O’Connor, Charles James, “San Francisco Relief Survey: The organization and methods of relief used after the
earthquake and fire of April 18, 1906,” The Russell Sage Foundation, 1913, p. 33.
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1947-1950: General Disaster Relief Funding from the Federal
Government Begins
After the Second World War, the federal government started becoming more involved in disaster
relief beyond specific incident-by-incident relief efforts. In 1947, P.L. 80-233 authorized the
federal government to provide surplus property to state and local governments for disaster relief
under the Disaster Surplus Property Program. Less than eight months later, the Administrator of
the Federal Works Agency noted in a letter to President Harry S. Truman that the program would
not provide adequate relief to communities over the longer term.34
The next year, Congress made its first appropriation for general disaster relief. The Second
Deficiency Appropriation Act, 1948,35 which was enacted on June 25, 1948, provided funding
directly to the President as follows:
DISASTER RELIEF
Disaster Relief: To enable the President, through such agency or agencies as he may
designate, and in such manner as he shall determine, to supplement the efforts and available
resources of State and local governments or other agencies, whenever he finds that any
flood, fire, hurricane, earthquake, or other catastrophe in any part of the United States is of
sufficient severity and magnitude to warrant emergency assistance by the Federal
Government in alleviating hardship, or suffering caused thereby, and if the governor of any
State in which such catastrophe shall occur shall certify that such assistance is required,
$500,000, to remain available until June 30, 1949, and to be expended without regard to
such provisions regulating the expenditure of Government funds or the employment of
persons in the Government service as he shall specify: Provided, That no expenditures shall
be made with respect to any such catastrophe in any State until the governor of such State
shall have entered into an agreement with such agency of the Government as the President
may designate giving assurance of expenditure of a reasonable amount of the funds of the
government of such State, local governments therein, or other agencies, for the same or
similar purposes with respect to such catastrophe: Provided further, That no part of this
appropriation shall be expended for departmental personal services: Provided further, That
no part of this appropriation shall be expended for permanent construction: Provided
further, That within any affected area Federal agencies are authorized to participate in any
such emergency assistance.36
Although this legislation comes with broad latitude for the President in expending these funds,
this appropriation contained several hallmarks that continue in today’s disaster relief structure:
 the President makes the determination that a disaster has occurred, and that
federal aid is required;
 the state has a role in certifying the need and committing state resources to be
eligible for federal support;

34 U.S. President (Truman), “Letter to the Administrator, Federal Works Agency, on the Disaster Surplus Property
Program,” Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Harry S. Truman, 1948 (Washington: GPO, 1964), p.
46.
35 P.L. 80-785.
36 The term “Disaster Relief Fund” as a title for the Disaster Relief appropriation seemed to have evolved informally.
The Disaster Relief appropriation was initially provided under a heading of “Funds Appropriated to the President” (this
practice would continue until the mid-1980s) and was described in its early years frequently as “the President’s disaster
relief fund.” See, for example, Rep. Angell, “Second Deficiency Appropriation Bill, 1948,” House debate,
Congressional Record, vol. 94, part 7 (June 16, 1948), p. 8467.
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 aid is to “supplement the efforts and available resources of State and local
governments or other agencies,” rather than to fund the entire relief effort; and
 the President may direct federal agencies to participate in emergency assistance.
The conditions laid out in this appropriation were echoed in the next two appropriations, provided
in 1949, which totaled $1 million.37
1950-1966: The Disaster Relief Act of 1950—General Relief and
Specific Relief
The Disaster Relief Act of 1950 formalized the structure outlined in the initial appropriations
legislation, and indicated for the first time that
it is the intent of Congress to provide an orderly and continuing means of assistance by the
Federal Government to States and local governments in carrying out their responsibilities
to alleviate suffering and damage resulting from major disasters, to repair essential public
facilities in major disasters, and to foster the development of such State and local
organizations and plans to cope with major disasters as may be necessary.38
Section 8 of the act limited the authorized disaster relief funding to $5 million in total.39 This
restriction did not effectively constrain funding, however. The first supplemental appropriation
for general disaster relief authorized under the Disaster Relief Act for 1950 provided $25 million,
and a waiver of the Section 8 limitation.40 The first authorized annual appropriation for general
disaster relief was for $800,000, enacted August 31, 1951, less than two months later.41 Annual
appropriations were “to be available until expended,” rather than expiring as previous general
disaster relief appropriations had, and their use for administrative expenses was statutorily capped
at 2% per year.42
Under the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, the federal government’s role in disaster relief
expanded further.43 Federal general disaster relief programs broadened in 1962, with the inclusion
of several American territories, and provision of grants for repair of state facilities.44
However, Congress still passed specific legislation authorizing relief programs pursuant to other
major disasters. In 1964 and 1965, post-disaster legislation provided specific relief for victims of
an earthquake in Alaska,45 flooding in western states,46 and Hurricane Betsy in Florida, Louisiana,

37 P.L. 81-3, P.L. 81-5; 63 Stat. 5.
38 P.L. 81-875; 64 Stat. 1109.
39 P.L. 81-875; 64 Stat. 1111.
40 P.L. 82-80; 65 Stat. 123.
41 P.L. 82-137; 65 Stat. 268.
42 This limitation would rise to three percent in an FY1956 supplemental appropriation (P.L. 84-406; 70 Stat. 12), and
be carried in appropriations legislation through FY1979.
43 For a broader discussion of this evolution, see “The Evolution of U.S. Disaster Relief Policy,” by Bruce R. Lindsay
and Francis X. McCarthy, in CRS Committee Print CP10000, The Evolving Congress: A Committee Print Prepared for
the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration
.
44 P.L. 87-592.
45 P.L. 88-451.
46 P.L. 89-41.
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and Mississippi.47 In a history of disaster relief legislation, one observer described the situation
thus:
In 1962, 1964, and 1965, Congress had sought to preserve P.L. 81-875 [the Disaster Relief
Act of 1950] and yet provide disaster assistance in the case of the very big disasters by
special legislation only for the states named. Although no one at the time appeared aware
that the new types of assistance would become precedents for general legislation, it was in
the nature of the system that ultimately they would be reenacted for general use.48
1966-1974: The Disaster Relief Act of 1966—General Relief
Broadens
The Disaster Relief Act of 196649 revised the general disaster assistance program by providing
more assistance to public colleges and universities, as well as authorizing assistance to repair
local public facilities.50 The Disaster Relief Act of 196951 was enacted in response to Hurricane
Camille, although the expansion of the federal role in disaster assistance it formalized had been
included in legislation since 1965. It included broader public and individual assistance, including
temporary housing, food assistance, unemployment assistance, matching funds to help states
develop preparedness plans, and authorization for the federal government to fund up to half the
cost of repair and restoration of public facilities.52 Not all of these costs would be borne by the
funding provided to the President, and the programs were only authorized through calendar 1970,
but they represented a significant broadening of federal government involvement.
The Disaster Relief Act of 197053 consolidated the previous disaster relief legislation into a single
act, and made many of the Camille-driven programs permanent, including programs to provide
temporary housing assistance, debris removal, and permanent repair and replacement of state and
local public facilities.
1974-Present: The Era of Federally Coordinated Emergency
Management
The Disaster Relief Act of 197454 provided for a more robust preparedness program, and
introduced the concept of “emergency” declarations to accommodate assistance in cases where an
incident did not rise to the “major disaster” threshold.55
The Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Amendments of 1988 (P.L. 100-707, hereinafter
DREAA) renamed the Disaster Relief Act of 1974 as the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and

47 P.L. 89-339.
48 Frank P. Bourgin, A History of Federal Disaster Relief Legislation, 1950-1974, Federal Emergency Management
Agency, Washington, DC, September 1983, p. 103.
49 P.L. 89-769.
50 Bourgin, p. 75.
51 P.L. 91-79.
52 Bourgin, p. 103.
53 P.L. 91-606.
54 P.L. 93-288.
55 Although it was expected to expire in December 1977, it was extended to the end of fiscal year 1980.
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Emergency Assistance Act (the aforementioned Stafford Act).56 It made the following
programmatic changes:
 Authorized the President to declare an emergency under the Stafford Act in “any
occasion or instance” in which federal aid is needed—allowing for assistance
without a major disaster declaration;57
 Defined a “major disaster” as “any natural catastrophe ... 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.... ”58
 Established a 75% minimum level of assistance for the immediate response,
debris removal, and repair of public facilities; and
 Provided for a 50/50 cost share for hazard mitigation grants.59
The Stafford Act and the DREAA are the pieces of legislation that structure the current
relationship between the federal and state government in emergency management and disaster
relief. These laws, which appear at 42 U.S.C. 5121 et seq., continue to be amended, with reform
legislation frequently following on the heels of exceptionally large disasters, or complexes of
disasters. This has happened three times since FEMA was incorporated into DHS in 2003:
1. The Post Katrina Emergency Reform Act of 2006 (PKEMRA)60—Enacted as
a sixth title to the FY2007 DHS Appropriations Act, PKREMRA reauthorized
and restructured FEMA, and made amendments to the Stafford Act, including
allowing federal assistance to be provided in the absence of a specific request,
improved assistance for individuals with disabilities, and expanded availability of
public assistance to non-governmental organizations.
2. The Sandy Recovery Improvement Act (SRIA)61—Enacted as a part of the
FY2013 supplemental appropriations act, SRIA included alternative procedures
for the Stafford Act Public Assistance program to allow disaster impacted area to
get assistance on the basis of cost estimates rather than reimbursement of costs,
among other reforms.
3. The Disaster Recovery Reform Act of 2018 (DRRA)62—Enacted through
language that was attached to an FAA reauthorization measure in the wake of
wildfires in California as well as Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, DRRA has
provisions to broaden federal investments from the DRF into mitigation efforts
that protect public infrastructure, as well as making improvements to the Public
Assistance and Individual Assistance programs. For additional information on
these reforms, see CRS Report R45819, The Disaster Recovery Reform Act of
2018 (DRRA): A Summary of Selected Statutory Provisions
.


56 P.L. 100-707.
57 102 Stat. 4689.
58 102 Stat. 4690.
59 These grants would be amended in 1993 to a 75/25 cost share.
60 P.L. 109-295, Title VI.
61 P.L. 113-2, Division B.
62 P.L. 115-254, Division D.
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Pandemic COVID-19 and the Stafford Act
With the COVID-19 response, major disaster assistance programs under the Stafford Act
authorities are being used for the first time to respond to an infectious disease outbreak.63
Remarks from the passage of the Stafford Act seem to indicate that this may not have been what
the architects of the measure envisioned. While not explicitly excluding the use of the major
disaster declaration for infectious disease, Rep. Arlen Stangeland (R-MN), the Ranking Member
of the Subcommittee on Water Resources of the House Public Works and Transportation
Committee, noted in his comments on the final version of the bill that other authorities existed for
public health matters:
Title I reorganizes the disaster relief program to clearly define Presidential authority to
respond to major disasters and emergencies. Major disasters would include primarily
natural catastrophes or, in certain instances, nonnatural catastrophes while emergencies
would include any occasion or instance in which Federal assistance was necessary.
However, we do not intend for emergency declarations to be available in responding to
public health problems such as disease epidemics or environmental or nuclear catastrophes
for which Federal assistance is already available...
On March 13, 2020, President Donald J. Trump made a series of emergency declarations under
Section 501(b) of the Stafford Act in response to the nationwide spread of a novel coronavirus
disease (COVID-19).64 The declarations authorized assistance to all U.S. states, territories, tribes,
and the District of Columbia. At the time he announced the declarations, he invited the recipients
of those declarations to request major disaster declarations.65 FEMA notes that 50 states, four
territories, and the District of Columbia have all requested and received major disaster
declarations for COVID-19 response.66
Later that month, a supplemental appropriation for the DRF was provided in the CARES Act, P.L.
116-136, Division B, providing $45 billion in emergency-designated supplemental appropriations.
As with other DRF appropriations, this funding was not provided specifically for COVID-19
efforts, but for Stafford Act programs more broadly. From March 13, 2020, through July 31, 2020
(from the declarations through the end of the third quarter), FEMA spent $7.271 billion from the
DRF on Stafford Act costs related to COVID-19 declarations: $3.700 billion on operating
expenses, and $3.289 billion on Public Assistance programs, which reimburses eligible public and
nonprofit entities for the costs of major disaster response and recovery. $179 million was
provided through the Individual Assistance program.
On August 8, 2020, the Administration announced a new “lost wages assistance” program, which
would expand and extend unemployment benefits for several weeks using up to $44 billion from
the DRF. This initiative would be implemented through the Other Needs Assistance program
under the Individual Assistance programs under the Stafford Act.67 Almost $43 billion was

63 Two emergency declarations under the Stafford Act were made in the fall of 2000 for West Nile virus control.
64 While the president made a single announcement, the declarations themselves apply to each individual state,
territory, or tribe.
65 https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/letter-president-donald-j-trump-emergency-determination-stafford-
act/
66 https://www.fema.gov/disasters/coronavirus/disaster-declarations, as retrieved October 15, 2020. FEMA also notes
that 32 tribes are working with FEMA under the emergency declarations.
67 For more information on the Lost Wages Assistance program, see CRS Insight IN11492, COVID-19: Supplementing
Unemployment Insurance Benefits (Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation vs. Lost Wages Assistance)
, by
Katelin P. Isaacs and Julie M. Whittaker.
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obligated for this program before it terminated68—more than three-quarters of the DRF
obligations related to COVID-19 to that point,69 and more than six times the $6.8 billion obligated
under the ONA program to that point since its inception in 2002.70
As of the end of FY2020, FEMA had associated $52.681 billion in DRF spending with the
COVID-19 response. $42.143 billion was provided through the Individual Assistance program,
the vast majority of which was for the lost wages initiative. $6.058 billion was provided for
Public Assistance programs, and $4.319 billion was for FEMA’s operational costs.
It remains to be seen whether the Stafford Act COVID-19 response is a new model for dealing
with public health issues. Congress may choose to refine this novel application, or reset the
authorities of the Stafford Act along its earlier precedents.
Appropriations for General Disaster Relief
Types of Appropriations for Disaster Relief
General disaster relief activities by the federal government under the Stafford Act are funded
through the appropriations process. Three types of appropriations support these activities:
Supplemental Appropriations are requested by the Administration on an ad hoc basis, generally
to address a need not sufficiently covered in the annual appropriations process. These move on a
short timetable and generally do not go through the complete committee process. More than 82%
of net appropriations for the DRF have been provided through supplemental appropriations.
Annual Appropriations: Requested by the Administration in February as a part of the annual
budget process, these are expected to be passed by Congress and enacted into law prior to the
start of the fiscal year in October. Annual appropriations measures fund the core activities of the
government and are developed through the committee process.
Continuing Appropriations: Provided when annual appropriations work remains unresolved at
the beginning of the new fiscal year, these appropriations are temporary budget authority
provided at a rate for operations based on the prior fiscal year to allow the government to
continue functioning. The measure that provides them is termed a “continuing resolution,” or
“CR.” These continuing appropriations may expire (in the case of an interim CR), or extend to the
end of the fiscal year (in the case of a “long-term” CR).
Supplemental Appropriations for Disaster Relief
The current Disaster Relief Fund concept can trace its birth back to an appropriations bill in the
1940s—the Second Deficiency Appropriations Act, 1948.71 Deficiency appropriations bills,
which provided funding to meet unanticipated needs during the fiscal year, were a forerunner of
modern supplemental appropriations bills. The severity, frequency, and resultant costs to the
federal government from the array of disasters that strike the United States have always been

68 Federal Emergency Management Agency, “Lost Wages Assistance Totals,” October 26, 2020, email from FEMA
Congressional Affairs.
69 October 2020 Disaster Relief Fund Report, pp. 13, 25, https://www.fema.gov/about/reports-and-data/disaster-relief-
fund-monthly-reportscccccchfrtbcnttilrgfvrnecgthdnhvbfibvlclvrkd.
70 CRS analysis of ONA data from OpenFEMA databases downloaded October 27, 2020.
71 P.L. 80-785.
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unpredictable in an annual budgetary context. To respond to this uncertainty, disaster relief
funding frequently has been provided through deficiency, and later supplemental, appropriations.
When Congress and the Administration began to express concerns about the budget deficit in the
1980s, efforts were made to restrain supplemental spending by limiting it to cases of “dire
emergency.” With the implementation of budget control in the 1990s, a special designation for
emergency spending was created. If both Congress and the Administration agreed that certain
spending was an emergency requirement, budget limits would be adjusted to accommodate that
spending. Congress used the emergency designation on a disaster relief appropriation for the first
time in an FY1992 supplemental appropriations act.72 Congress continues to use emergency
designations in supplemental appropriations legislation to provide budgetary flexibility.
At one point, Congress was statutorily required to use the designation for disaster relief
appropriations. Under the terms of the aforementioned FY1992 supplemental appropriations act,
beginning in FY1993, Congress required “all amounts appropriated for disaster assistance
payments [under the Stafford Act] that are in excess of either the historical annual average
obligation of $320,000,000, or the amount submitted in the President’s initial budget request,
whichever is lower” be designated as emergency requirements under a specific provision of the
Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985.73 This practice of emergency
designation above a particular threshold was followed until FY2000, when a clause appeared in
the appropriation noting that discretionary appropriations were being provided notwithstanding
the restrictions of this section of the U.S. Code.74
With the passage of the Budget Control Act in 2011, which provided additional budgetary
flexibility for the costs for major disasters, supplemental disaster relief appropriations declined in
frequency, but remained a primary contributor to balances in the DRF. See the “DRF Funding
History: FY1964-FY20”
section below for details.
Annual Appropriations
The first general disaster relief funding was provided in an annual appropriations act in 1948, and
carried its own authorizing provisions. Stand-alone authorization for general disaster relief first
came in 1950.
Once the initial separate authorization was put in place for general disaster relief, appropriations
were provided for FY1952, FY1956-FY1958, and FY1962. As noted above, with the
development, codification, and expansion of the federal role in emergency management,
appropriations for general disaster relief became more common—and larger. Annual
appropriations for general disaster relief have been provided each year since FY1964, with only
two exceptions.75

72 P.L. 102-229, the “Dire Emergency Supplemental Appropriations and Transfers for Relief from the Effects of
Natural Disasters, for Other Urgent Needs, and for Incremental Cost of ‘Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm’ Act of
1992.”
73 P.L. 102-229, 105 Stat. 1711. The reference remains in law as 42 U.S.C §5203, but P.L. 105-33, the Balanced
Budget Act of 1997 (at 111 Stat. 699) changed the underlying law on which the requirement depended.
74 P.L. 106-74, at 115 Stat. 687. The same clause appeared in FY2003, but has not been a part of enacted DRF
appropriations since then.
75 In FY1984 and FY1991, no appropriation was requested or made for disaster relief, as unobligated balances were
deemed sufficient to fund anticipated disasters. See Federal Emergency Management Agency, Justification of
Estimates, Fiscal Year 1984, Part 2
, Washington, DC, January 1983, p. DR-3, and Federal Emergency Management
Agency, Justification of Estimates, Fiscal Year 1992, Washington, DC, February 1991, p. DR-3.
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Disaster Relief Designation
The adoption of a special designation for the costs of major disasters under the Stafford Act as a
part of the Budget Control Act of 2011 (P.L. 112-25) made it easier to provide budget authority to
the DRF in the annual appropriations process.76 In the first seven appropriations cycles since the
implementation of this designation in FY2012, more budget authority was provided for the DRF
in annual appropriations measures than in the 63 prior cycles combined, accounting for inflation.
The gross appropriation for the DRF of $12.558 billion in FY2019 was the largest annual
appropriation ever for the DRF, breaking the record set by the FY2018 annual appropriation. That
record appears likely to be broken again, as the Trump Administration requested $14.550 billion
for the DRF in FY2020, and both House and Senate committee-reported annual DHS
appropriations bills meet or exceed that funding level.
Since the FY2013 budget request, FEMA has bifurcated its annual appropriations request
between the costs of major disasters—the “Disaster Relief Category”—and everything else
funded by the DRF—“Base Disaster Relief,” which includes funding for emergency designations,
fire management assistance, pre-disaster declaration surge activities, and Disaster Readiness and
Support Programs. The former category is eligible for the designation as “disaster relief,” a
designation that triggers an upward adjustment of statutory discretionary spending limits to
accommodate it without triggering sequestration. The latter category is not, and scores as
discretionary spending.
With the supplemental appropriation provided in the CARES Act, a new approach was taken. Of
the $45 billion funds in emergency-designated supplemental funds, $25 billion was specified as
being for the cost of major disasters, and $15 million was specified as being for any Stafford Act
activities—including those activities in the base as well as major disasters—allowing those funds
to be used more flexibly in the face of the COVID-19 epidemic, without requiring a
reprogramming or transfer.77
Continuing Appropriations
Even though the DRF is a “no-year” fund, and its appropriations are available until expended, it
does get temporary replenishment from continuing resolutions (CRs) at times, until its annual
appropriations are finalized.
In FY1982, for the first time, interim general disaster relief funding was provided in a CR through
an “anomaly,” a provision providing funds at an operating rate different from that base rate of
operations provided in the resolution.78
These “anomaly” provisions may also provide flexibility that can help avoid some of the
complications that can arise under the constraints of operating under continuing appropriations.
For example, CRs generally provide funding at a constant rate of operations, with certain
restrictions. This can complicate disaster response and recovery, when calls for funding vary in
scale and timing from year to year. The DRF could, in some circumstances, risk being depleted

76 See “Changes in the Budget Process” and CRS In Focus IF10720, Calculation and Use of the Disaster Relief
Allowable Adjustment
.
77 FEMA did not choose to publicly track those funds separately, but instead first included them in its totals for the
DRF base in its monthly reporting on DRF balances. Once it became clear that the largest draw on resources for
COVID-19 efforts would be based on the major disaster declarations, FEMA accounted for these funds in the major
disaster designated portion starting in May 2020.
78 P.L. 97-92; 95 Stat. 1187.
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by response and recovery needs while operating under a CR. This risk can be addressed in one of
two ways: responsively, when FEMA requests special flexibility from the Office of Management
and Budget (OMB)—which apportions CR funding to agencies; or proactively, when a special
provision is included in the CR that directs such flexibility be provided to ensure adequate
resources are available. Such language can be found in the initial CRs for FY2018 through
FY2021, which all provide that the funds provided “may be apportioned up to the rate for
operations necessary to carry out response and recovery activities” under the Stafford Act.79
Lapses in Annual Appropriations and the DRF
Most annual appropriations expire at the end of the fiscal year. On several occasions in recent history, neither
annual nor continuing appropriations were enacted prior to the beginning of the fiscal year, leading to a “funding
gap” or “lapse” in appropriations. When this occurs, partial shutdown of government functions and emergency
furlough of employees ensues for functions that are not funded through fee revenues or multiyear appropriations,
and do not immediately protect life and property.
The Disaster Relief appropriation can fund disaster relief operations, as its appropriations do not expire at the end
of the fiscal year, but lapses in annual appropriations have an impact on agency efficiency. Some disaster-related
functions have been subject to emergency furlough in the past.80 Such furloughs may indirectly affect the ability of
a component to carry out its mission. For example, in the event of a shutdown and furlough, while staff directly
engaged in activities to prevent loss of life or property are not subject to furlough, other staff are not available to
review grant requests or approve the release of appropriated funds for non-emergency disaster recovery grants
from the DRF.
DRF Funding History: FY1964-FY2020
The following figures show appropriations for the DRF from FY1964 through FY2020.
Each fiscal year shows a gross total of annual appropriations and discretionary appropriations
(represented by a two-part bar) and a net total (represented by a black mark on each bar), which
takes into account rescissions and transfers from the DRF. An inset graphic provides the scale to
include funding levels for several outlier years,81 while showing the detail of appropriations for
the more typical years. The first figure shows data in nominal dollars, and the second shows
constant FY2020 dollars.
The figures show an increase in appropriations for the DRF starting in the 1990s, largely due to
increases in supplemental appropriations. Annual appropriations rose significantly in the early
2000s and again starting in FY2013. Even with the surge in appropriations for the 2017
catastrophic series of disasters, which included Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Maria, and the
California wildfires, and the large supplemental appropriation for the DRF for COVID-19 in
FY2020, FY2005 remains the single highest year for appropriations for the DRF, when a series of
hurricanes, including Katrina, Rita, and Wilma hit the southeastern United States.82
A table showing the underlying data for each figure appears in the Appendix.


79 P.L. 115-56, Division D, §129; P.L. 115-245, Division C, §124; and P.L. 116-59, §133.
80 For details, see CRS Report R43252, FY2014 Appropriations Lapse and the Department of Homeland Security:
Impact and Legislation
, by William L. Painter.
81 FY2005, FY2006, and FY2017.
82 The following year, a significant amount of what had been provided was rescinded and re-appropriated to other
agencies to provide disaster assistance and repair storm and flood damage.
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Figure 1. Nominal Dollar Disaster Relief Appropriations, FY1964-FY2020

Source: CRS analysis of appropriations laws.
Notes: Totals for FY2005, FY2006, FY2018, and FY2020 referenced by the arrows, are beyond the scale of the main graph and are shown on the inset. FY2013 numbers
do not reflect the impact of sequestration. Supplemental data include contingent appropriations and all appropriations under the heading of “Disaster Relief” or “Disaster
Relief Fund” including the language “for an additional amount.” Reductions reflected in the Net Total data include transfers and rescissions specifically enumerated in
appropriations acts. For information on trends in the declarations that helped drive the demand for these appropriations, see CRS Report R42702, Stafford Act
Declarations 1953-2016: Trends, Analyses, and Implications for Congress
, by Bruce R. Lindsay.
CRS-17



Figure 2. FY2020 Dollar Disaster Relief Appropriations, FY1964-FY2020

Source: CRS analysis of appropriations laws.
Notes: Totals for FY2005, FY2006, FY2018, and FY2020 referenced by the arrows, are beyond the scale of the main graph and are shown on the inset. FY2013 numbers
do not reflect the impact of sequestration. Supplemental data include contingent appropriations and all appropriations under the heading of “Disaster Relief” or “Disaster
Relief Fund” including the language “for an additional amount.” Reductions reflected in the Net Total data include transfers and rescissions specifically enumerated in
appropriations acts. For information on trends in the declarations that helped drive the demand for these appropriations, see CRS Report R42702, Stafford Act
Declarations 1953-2016: Trends, Analyses, and Implications for Congress
, by Bruce R. Lindsay.
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Factors in Changing Appropriations Levels
For years, FEMA’s budget justifications have noted, in one form or another, that “[t]he primary
cost driver associated with Major Disasters is disaster activity.”83 While year-to-year disaster
relief appropriations are largely driven by disaster activity and ongoing recovery needs, when
analyzing historical data over an extended time frame, other factors such as programmatic
changes in general disaster relief and certain changes in the budget process may also warrant
consideration.
Incident Frequency and Severity
The two largest factors affecting year-to-year disaster relief appropriations are disaster activity,
which varies in frequency and severity, and the ongoing recovery costs from previous disasters.
Federal involvement in disaster response and recovery occurs when lower levels of government
find their capabilities are overwhelmed and turn to the federal government for help. Reduced (or
increased) numbers of calls for relief mean reduced (or increased) need for disaster relief
appropriations.
The incidents that lead to expenditures from the DRF vary in scale. Equally powerful storms may
strike a community with a glancing blow or a direct hit. An earthquake may strike a rural area, or
a major city with complex infrastructure. Stricken communities, states, territories, and tribes have
varying levels of preparedness for particular types of disaster, and different amounts of public
infrastructure to repair and replace.
Some observers have noted that as the U.S. population grows and develops property in disaster-
prone areas, and as patterns of severe weather shift, the costs of disasters are likely to continue to
rise.84 According to the National Centers for Environmental Information of the National Oceanic
and Atmospheric Administration, from 1980 through October 2020, the United States has
averaged between six and seven weather-related disaster events that each cost $1 billion or more
each year.85 From 1980 through 2007, more than seven billion-dollar events occurred in only one
year (1998). Since 2007, these events have become more frequent: only one year since 2007 has
seen fewer than seven such events, and ten or more such events have occurred each year since
2015. The United States was struck by an annual record-tying 16 such events in just the first nine
months of 2020.86
The contrast between the period of high-frequency, high-impact events in the 2010s and the
relatively calm period of the 1980s is illustrated in Figure 2. Without the driver of large disasters,
DRF appropriations remained modest. During the period from FY1981 to FY1991, abnormally
low levels of disaster activity led to no supplemental appropriations for 7 of those 11 fiscal years,
and no annual appropriations in either FY1984 or FY1991—the only two fiscal years for which
this has occurred since FY1964. By contrast, over the last six years, the DRF has required
sustained high levels of appropriations, including three of its six highest total appropriations ever

83 Department of Homeland Security, Disaster Relief Fund, Fiscal Year 2019 Congressional Budget Justification,
Federal Emergency Management Agency, Washington, DC, February 2018, p. FEMA-DRF-30, https://www.dhs.gov/
sites/default/files/publications/Federal%20Emergency%20Management%20Agency.pdf.
84 For information on forecasts for hurricane-specific disaster costs, see Congressional Budget Office, Potential
Increases in Hurricane Damage in the United States: Implications for the Federal Budget
, Washington, DC, June
2016, https://www.cbo.gov/publication/51518.
85 These cost figures are based on CPI-adjusted data.
86 NOAA, National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI), U.S. Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters
(2018), https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/billions/.
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by fiscal year, even adjusting for inflation, and back-to-back largest annual appropriations in
FY2018 and FY2019.
Further analysis of recent years shows the association between appropriations for the DRF and
the frequency of high-cost events is closer than the association with the number of major disaster
declarations. Table 1 shows data from FEMA regarding the number of major disasters declared
from FY2004 through FY2019 It also shows FEMA’s accounting for the number of major
disasters incurring more than $500 million in projected costs to FEMA in terms of the federal
share of Stafford Act programs, and the totals of those costs by fiscal year of the incident. The last
column shows the total gross appropriations for the DRF for each fiscal year.
Table 1. Disaster Declaration Activities and Projected Costs of Catastrophic
Disaster Declarations, FY2004-FY2019
Total
Projected
FEMA Costs of
Total Gross
Number of
Number of
Catastrophic
DRF
Major
Catastrophic
Disasters
Appropriation
Disaster
Disaster
($millions,
($millions,
Fiscal Year
Declarations
Declarations
nominal)
nominal)
2004
65
5
6,906
4,023
2005
45
5
47,919
68,427
2006
53
1
2,606
-16,391
2007
67
0

5,743
2008
68
3
8,048
12,935
2009
63
0

1,178
2010
79
1
573
6,573
2011
98
2
1,344
2,650
2012
46
1
706
7,076
2013
65
3
22,767
18,469
2014
48
0

5,897
2015
44
0

6,729
2016
41
2
3,407
6,329
2017
60
8
85,991
13,996
2018
54
2
2,914
45,011
2019
53
4
6,628
12,005
Total
949
37
189,809
200,650
Annual
59.3
2.3
11,863
12,541
Average
Source: Email from FEMA Office of Congressional Affairs to CRS, September 24, 2019, and data from FEMA’s
database of disaster declarations by year, as of November 12, 2019 (https://www.fema.gov/disasters/year).
Notes: DRF appropriations totals reflect the impacts of rescissions and legislatively directed transfers. Due to
the nature of the data presented, the information in the figure represents nominal dol ars. FY2013 data does not
include the impact of sequestration.
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Taking the FEMA catastrophic event cost projections and the net total DRF appropriations from
the two right-hand columns in Table 1 and matching them up in Figure 3 illuminates two key
points about the DRF. First, catastrophic events are the major driver of DRF funding, rather than
the volume of major disaster declarations. Second, while a large amount of appropriations are
provided for the DRF in the immediate aftermath of catastrophic incidents, subsequent years’
appropriations and obligations are also elevated to address long-term recovery costs.87
Figure 3 focuses on FY2000 through FY2019, supplementing the above data with obligation data
that illustrate total annual obligations for the DRF.88 This illustrates visually how appropriations
are driven by catastrophic events, and are spent over the ensuing years to pay for recovery costs.
The yellow bars show the FEMA-projected DRF costs for catastrophic disasters that occurred in a
given fiscal year. For example, FY2005 shows a bar denoting the projected costs of Hurricanes
Katrina, Rita, and Wilma, while FY2013 shows a bar denoting the costs of Hurricane Sandy. The
blue line shows total annual and supplemental appropriations for the DRF, and the green line
shows the annual obligations from the DRF each year. Note that the blue line shows the surge in
appropriations provided by a series of supplemental appropriations provided in the days after
Katrina in FY2005, and a rescission of some of those resources in FY2006 to pay for other relief
programs.
Harvey, Irma, Maria, and the 2017 California wildfires led to large projected costs of FY2017
catastrophic disasters. The spike in immediate appropriations did not align with that large
projected need, but instead appears the following year, as the three hurricanes occurred close to
the end of the fiscal year, and the obligations for recovery and mitigation activities do not occur
immediately.
Disaster relief appropriations continue to pay the costs of recovery from catastrophic incidents for
years after they occur. For example, in FY2020, FEMA obligated $23.9 billion in DRF funding
for ongoing recovery from past catastrophic disasters, including almost $16.4 billion for the four
2017 events mentioned above, $336 million for Hurricane Sandy (2012) and $124 million for
costs from hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma (2005).

87 FEMA’s projected cost data cannot be consistently deflated to a constant dollar value. The $45 billion provided in
the CARES Act and COVID-19 obligations are excluded from this analysis as their scale masks the trend line of
obligations from prior-year catastrophic incidents.
88 Due to the novel uses of the Stafford Act and DRF resources for the COVID-19 response, FY2020 is an outlier year
that does not reflect the overall trend of DRF appropriations and obligations, and projections of total costs for COVID-
19 response and recovery from the DRF are incomplete at best as the situation continues to evolve.
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Figure 3. Catastrophic Disaster Costs, DRF Appropriations and Obligations
(FY2000-FY2019)

Source: CRS analysis of FEMA data reflected in Table 1 and provided via email to CRS in October 2020.
Notes: DRF appropriations totals reflect the impacts of rescissions and legislatively directed transfers. Due to
the nature of the data presented, the information in the figure represents nominal dol ars. Obligations are net of
deobligations.
Programmatic Changes in Disaster Relief
Over the long term, alterations to the scope of federal disaster relief programs affect the type and
level of federal spending when disasters occur. Initially, the first appropriation for disaster relief
and the Disaster Relief Act of 1950 authorized funding to repair local public facilities at the
President’s discretion. As the brief history above relates, the federal program for general disaster
relief has evolved into a much broader program, of which local public facilities is only one facet.
This evolution has occurred gradually. Some of this evolution was the result of incorporating
assistance offered in response to specific disasters in the 1960s and 1970s into the general relief
programs under the Stafford Act. Additional changes were brought about by the broadening of the
federal role in smaller-scale incidents, as well as proactive declarations prior to potential disasters
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to reduce their impact. In addition, disaster relief programs funded through the DRF now include
disaster mitigation programs that are not limited to mitigating the type of disaster that triggered
them, but are also intended to reduce the impact (and by extension, the cost) of disasters over the
long term.
The impacts of programmatic expansions are reflected in Figure 2, with the trend of increased
general disaster relief appropriations on a small scale associated with expansions under the
Disaster Relief Act of 1969 and the Disaster Relief Act of 1970, and on a larger scale with the
expansion of programs under the Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Amendments of
1988. While the decrease in disaster activities in the 1980s reduced the annual demand for
disaster relief appropriations, once the number of declared disasters rose again, and emergencies
and mitigation also drew on DRF resources, demand for those resources grew rapidly.
Programmatic broadening in general disaster relief has continued in the 21st century. It remains to
be seen if the unprecedented use of the Stafford Act to support COVID-19 response, including
expansions of unemployment assistance beyond state unemployment eligibility, will become a
regular application of DRF resources. For a more detailed discussion of changes to authorized
programs, see “1966-1974: The Disaster Relief Act of 1966—General Relief Broadens” and
“1974-Present: The Era of Federally Coordinated Emergency Management.
Changes in the Budget Process
Changes in congressional budget processes have at times been discussed as a means of limiting
the budgetary impact of disaster relief spending. However, the budget controls that have been
approved and implemented generally have been provided with provisions to ensure disaster relief
budget authority remains available if needed.
Prior to 1985, Congress provided appropriations to fund the federal government without specific
statutory limitations on overall spending. The 1985 Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit
Control Act put limits on deficit spending in place. The Budget Enforcement Act of 1990 placed
express limits on discretionary spending for the first time.
The 1990 act also provided an exception to those limits, allowing Congress, together with the
President, to declare certain spending to be an emergency requirement, and therefore not subject
to those limits. This was used to provide additional appropriations for disaster relief. Although the
original set of discretionary limits expired, the emergency spending designation has continued as
part of the appropriations process.
In 2011, the Budget Control Act (P.L. 112-25) not only reestablished statutory spending limits,
but also provided a special designation for the costs of major disasters, in addition to the
emergency designation. The amount of funding that can be designated as disaster relief—defined
as spending pursuant to a major disaster declaration—is limited by a formula based on past
spending on disaster relief. It is not a restriction on how much can be spent on disasters,
however—funding in excess of the allowable adjustment for disaster relief is still eligible for an
emergency designation. This formula was adjusted by the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 to
account for emergency-designated spending on disasters. The special designation for disaster
spending will expire along with the discretionary spending limits in 2021.
The impact of these changes in the budget process on disaster relief appropriations appears to be
limited to the structure of the total appropriations, rather than the amount. The Congressional
Budget Office (CBO) noted that in the 1970s, “about 5%” of supplemental funding was for
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disasters.89 In a report reviewing supplemental appropriations enacted during the 1980s, CBO
indicated that number fell to less than 1%.90 This can be attributed to the drop in disaster activity
discussed above. In a similar report on the 1990s, CBO observed an increase in the use of
supplemental appropriations to provide disaster relief, noting the following:
[I]n the 1990s, Presidents Bush and Clinton tended to request—and the Congress tended
to provide in regular appropriations—less than what would eventually be spent in those
disaster-related accounts. (Some observers say the underfunding was an effort to keep total
appropriations under the [budget enforcement] caps.) When a disaster or emergency arose,
the Congress enacted supplemental appropriations during the fiscal year, usually at the
request of the President. That supplemental funding was designated emergency spending
and was therefore not counted under the discretionary spending caps.91
Figure 1 and Figure 2 do not show a distinct impact of budget controls on the overall level of
disaster spending. However, they do show an increase in the amount of funding provided in
annual appropriations versus supplemental appropriations starting in FY2012. The addition of the
disaster relief designation under the Budget Control Act enabled higher funding levels for
disasters in the annual appropriations bills, as disaster relief-designated appropriations did not
compete with other appropriations for limited discretionary resources, either within the
allocations provided to the subcommittee funding FEMA, or within the overall discretionary
spending limit. In the early years of the disaster relief designation, this increased annual funding
also reduced the frequency and urgency of supplemental appropriations for the DRF.
However, Congress has provided emergency-designated relief for catastrophic disasters in
supplemental appropriations, whether statutory budget controls were in place or not.
Figure 4 shows funding for the DRF from FY2004 through FY2020, showing, for each fiscal
year, the breakdown between annual and supplemental appropriations, then the breakdown of
funding provided within budget limitations (discretionary spending) and beyond budget
limitations (disaster relief and emergency designated spending). It shows the pre-BCA usage of
the emergency designation to cover supplemental appropriations for the DRF, and the usage of
the disaster relief designation to cover increased DRF annual appropriations, beginning in
FY2013.

89 Congressional Budget Office, Supplemental Appropriations in the 1970s, Staff Working Paper, Washington, DC,
July 1981, p. xiv, https://www.cbo.gov/publication/15398.
90 Congressional Budget Office, Supplemental Appropriations in the 1980s, Washington, DC, February 1, 1990, pp. 29,
32, https://www.cbo.gov/publication/17127.
91 Congressional Budget Office, Supplemental Appropriations in the 1990s, Washington, DC, March 2001, p. 13,
https://www.cbo.gov/publication/12999.
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Figure 4. DRF Annual and Supplemental Appropriations Within and Beyond
Discretionary Spending Limits, FY2004-FY2020

Source: CRS analysis of DRF appropriations database.
Notes: Does not show the impact of transfers or rescissions. FY2013 data does not include the impact of
sequestration.
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Budgeting Practices for Disaster Relief
Management of Disaster Relief Funds
The responsibility for managing DRF appropriations has shifted among agencies as the general
disaster relief function has grown. In March 1951, President Truman initially delegated the
authority for directing federal agencies in a disaster to the Housing and Home Finance
Administrator at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD);92 then in January
1953 the responsibility was shifted to the Federal Civil Defense Administration in the Department
of Defense (DOD).93 In 1961, the authority was moved within the department to the Office of
Civil Defense Mobilization, which had its name changed in 1961 to the Office of Emergency
Planning, and changed again in 1968 to the Office of Emergency Preparedness.94 It remained with
that office until its abolishment in 1973, when disaster relief powers were transferred from DOD
back to HUD, where those powers were exercised by the Federal Disaster Assistance
Administration (FDAA).95
Although management responsibilities were vested in various parts of the federal bureaucracy,
appropriations for general disaster relief were provided directly to the Executive Office of the
President from FY1948 through FY1973. For FY1974, funds were still described as “Funds
Appropriated to the President,” but they were provided within HUD’s appropriations.96
1978: The Creation of the Federal Emergency Management Agency
In 1978, responding to support for a more cohesive emergency management structure at the
federal level, President Jimmy Carter issued Reorganization Plan #3, which created the Federal
Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). At the time, disaster relief functions were vested in
three agencies: the FDAA (at HUD, managing general federal disaster relief), the Federal
Preparedness Agency (FPA—part of the General Services Administration); and the Defense Civil
Preparedness Agency (DCPA—part of the Department of Defense). This was the first time that
emergency management functions at the national level were expressly centralized into a single
federal agency. FEMA had a three-part role:
 Mobilizing federal resources,
 Coordinating federal efforts with state and local governments, and
 Managing the efforts of the public and private sectors in disaster responses.
FY1980 was the first year appropriations for “Disaster Relief” were provided to FEMA.
Calculation of the Annual Appropriations Request
A review of selected FEMA budget justifications shows how the executive branch has discussed
its decision concerning how much to request for disaster relief.

92 Harry S. Truman, Executive Order 10221, “Providing for the Administration of Disaster Relief,” March 2, 1951.
93 Harry S. Truman, Executive Order 10427, “Administration of Disaster Relief,” January 16, 1953.
94 CRS Report 78-102, Emergency Preparedness and Disaster Assistance: Federal Organization and Programs, by
Clark F. Norton, April 18, 1978, p. CRS-37.
95 Norton, p. CRS-38.
96 After FY1986, the “Funds Appropriated to the President” heading fell out of use.
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“Past Experience” and Various Averages
In the early 1980s (1983-1985), FEMA provided justifications for the Disaster Relief
appropriation that included management and coordination, individual assistance, and public
assistance activities. These activities were also supported under the Emergency Management
Planning and Assistance appropriation and the Salaries and Expenses appropriation for FEMA.
These justifications noted that actual disaster relief requirements were based on unpredictable
external factors. The FY1984 justification noted, “The budget requests mentioned are based on
average projection of disaster occurrence. Any significant change from the projected totals,
through either more or larger size incidents, could generate an increased request.”97
However, despite that uncertainty, a request for a specific budget number leads to questions about
the basis for that particular number. In the FY1986 process, FEMA explicitly noted it was
projecting its anticipated need “on the basis of past experience with disasters.”98 Between
September 1984, when FEMA submitted its budget request to the Office of Management and
Budget for review, and February 1985, when the budget justification was provided to Congress,
additional “experience” was apparently accumulated that reduced the projected demand for
disaster relief from $350 million to $275 million.99
By the FY1989 appropriations cycle, the language justifying the request had evolved into “an
assessment of historical averages,” and included specific data on the average annual disaster relief
obligations for a seven-year period,100 as well as the disaster relief obligations for the most
recently concluded fiscal year. The budget justification then included a request, noting the request
and the projected obligation data that justified it included $30 million in savings through
unspecified “legislative and administrative reforms.”101
As has been noted before, by the late 1980s and into the 1990s, concerns about deficit spending
led to the discussion of budget controls, and ultimately their implementation.
The FY1992 request highlighted the difficulty in simply using averages of past obligations.
According to the justification, the average annual obligation from 1981 to 1989 of $270 million
was exceeded by the FY1990 obligation of over $2 billion for costs related to Hurricane Hugo102
and the Loma Prieta earthquake.103

97 Federal Emergency Management Agency, Justification of Estimates, Fiscal Year 1984 (submitted to Congress),
January 1983, p. DR-7.
98 Federal Emergency Management Agency, Justification of Estimates, Fiscal Year 1986 (submitted to Office of
Management and Budget), September 1984, p. DR-2; and Federal Emergency Management Agency, Justification of
Estimates, Fiscal Year 1986
(submitted to Congress), February 1985, p. DR-2.
99 Ibid.
100 The data for this average went back to 1981, when cost-sharing measures were first applied to the public assistance
program. Adoption of those measures would have affected the baseline level of spending from the DRF.
101 Federal Emergency Management Agency, Justification of Estimates, Fiscal Year 1989 (submitted to Congress),
Washington, DC, February 1988, p. DR-2.
102 Hurricane Hugo occurred late in FY1989 (making landfall on September 22), so most of its disaster relief costs were
reflected in FY1990.
103 Federal Emergency Management Agency, Justification of Estimates, Fiscal Year 1992 (submitted to Congress),
Washington, DC, February 1991, p. DR-2.
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The FY1994 request included a great deal of information on prior-year activities, discussing these
elements in the context of average levels of obligations, and noting the impact of larger disasters
in prior years, but did little to specifically justify the request level of $292 million.104
Five-Year Averages (With Exceptions)
For FY1995, the budget discussion evolved, as FEMA justified the request on the basis of the
first five years of activities under the Stafford Act, and the series of major disasters that had
struck.105 The use of the five-year average continued through the 1990s and early 2000s, with
disaster support costs—the costs of maintaining disaster response capabilities that are not
attributable to a specific disaster—included as well. Certain very large disasters were not included
in the average. For example, for FY1999, FEMA explicitly excluded the costs of the 1994
Northridge earthquake, plus disaster support costs.106 For FY2003, not only were the ongoing
recovery costs from Northridge excluded from the average, but so were the impacts of the 9/11
terrorist attacks.
By FY2009, the justification had again evolved: “Coupled with funding from recoveries of prior
year obligations and unobligated funds carried forward, the appropriation request will fund the
five-year average obligation level for direct disaster activity (excluding extraordinary events, such
as the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001, the 2004 hurricanes in Florida and other states, and
Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma in 2005 and 2006 and excluding disaster readiness and
support functions).”107 In FY2011, the Administration simplified the request language by referring
to disasters that cost less than $500 million as “non-catastrophic disaster activity.” That year, in
addition to the request for the DRF based on the five-year average of “non-catastrophic” disaster
relief obligations, the Administration made a concurrent request for $3.6 billion for the costs of
prior catastrophic storms and wildfires.
The Budget Control Act Era: Ten-Year Averages, Reserves, and Flexibility
The 2010s saw continued debate on deficit spending, coupled with a continuing desire to fund
disaster relief programs. When Congress passed the Budget Control Act of 2011 (P.L. 112-25), it
created statutory caps on spending as well as a special mechanism to exempt some of the costs of
major disasters from those caps. (See “Changes in the Budget Process” for details.)
A $500 million reserve fund was included in the Administration’s budget request for FY2012.
This was intended to help ensure resources were available on short notice in hurricane season.108
This rose to $1 billion in FY2015. For FY2019, the reserve request increased to $2 billion “due to

104 Federal Emergency Management Agency, Justification of Estimates, Fiscal Year 1994 (submitted to Congress),
Washington, DC, March 1993, p. DR-3.
105 Federal Emergency Management Agency, Justification of Estimates, Fiscal Year 1995 (submitted to Congress),
Washington, DC, February 1994, pp. DR-2, DR-3. It also made special note that the budget justification had been
developed prior to the January 17, 1994 earthquake in Northridge, California, and that a supplemental appropriation
request of $4.7 billion had already been sent to Congress.
106 Federal Emergency Management Agency, Justification of Estimates, Fiscal Year 1999 (submitted to Congress),
Washington, DC, February 1998, pp. DR-8, DR-13, DR-23.
107 Department of Homeland Security, Disaster Relief Fund, Fiscal Year 2009 Congressional Budget Justification,
Federal Emergency Management Agency, Washington, DC, 2008, pp. FEMA (DRF) 1, https://www.dhs.gov/sites/
default/files/publications/budget_fy2009.pdf.
108 Department of Homeland Security, Disaster Relief Fund, Fiscal Year 2012 Congressional Budget Justification,
Federal Emergency Management Agency, Washington, DC, 2011, pp. DRF-5, DRF-6, https://www.dhs.gov/sites/
default/files/publications/dhs-congressional-budget-justification-fy2012.pdf.
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the uncertainty around the availability of additional supplemental funding to continue addressing
the 2017 hurricanes.”109
In FY2013, FEMA shifted from using a 5-year average to using a 10-year average of non-
catastrophic obligations, plus the estimated requirements for past catastrophic disasters, plus the
reserve, as the basis for their overall DRF request.110
When the DRF Runs Low
At times, the balance in the DRF has dropped to a point that raised concerns about the availability of adequate
resources in the DRF to fund Stafford Act programs in the face of disasters. When this occurs, FEMA implements
“Immediate Needs Funding” (INF) restrictions, which allow FEMA to prioritize, to an extent, obligation of funds
for short-term requirements from the DRF.
These INF restrictions do not affect individual assistance, or public assistance programs that reimburse emergency
response work and protective measures carried out by state and local authorities—it temporarily puts on hold
funding for long-term recovery projects and hazard mitigation projects that FEMA does not have in its system.111
The most recent example of INF restrictions as of this report was in August 2017, when Hurricane Harvey hit
Texas, and Hurricane Irma was anticipated to strike U.S. interests. FEMA initiated immediate needs funding on
August 28, 2017, as the unobligated balance in the DRF fell below $2.8 bil ion in the middle of responses to
multiple major disasters.112 FEMA lifted the restriction on October 2, 2017, when the DRF was replenished by a
$7.4 bil ion supplemental enacted on September 8, 2017 (P.L. 115-56, Division B), and by the release of additional
budget authority pursuant to a continuing resolution (P.L. 115-56, Division D, §129).113
Prior to that implementation, INF restrictions were put into place in each year from FY2003 through FY2006, as
well as FY2010.
Emergency Contingency Funding and Reserve Funds
At times, the Administration and Congress have examined methods of speeding up or broadening
the availability of funds to address emergencies and disasters by changing how they were
appropriated. Examples of this include the use of contingent appropriations and the proposal to
establish a reserve fund for disaster relief.
Contingent Appropriations
In some of its first exercises of the emergency designation, Congress chose to provide a portion
of the appropriation for the DRF as emergency-designated budget authority contingent on the
Administration specifically requesting the additional funds and designating them as an emergency
requirement. An example of this structure can be found in P.L. 103-75, a supplemental
appropriations bill for FY1993:
For an additional amount for ‘‘Disaster relief”, $1,735,000,000, and in addition,
$265,000,000, which shall be available only to the extent an official budget request for a

109 Department of Homeland Security, Disaster Relief Fund, Fiscal Year 2019 Congressional Budget Justification,
Federal Emergency Management Agency, Washington, DC, February 2018, p. FEMA-DRF-3, https://www.dhs.gov/
sites/default/files/publications/Federal%20Emergency%20Management%20Agency.pdf.
110 Department of Homeland Security, Disaster Relief Fund, Fiscal Year 2013 Congressional Budget Justification,
Federal Emergency Management Agency, Washington, DC, 2012, pp. DRF-5, DRF-6, https://www.dhs.gov/sites/
default/files/publications/dhs-congressional-budget-justification-fy2013.pdf.
111 https://www.fema.gov/blog/2011-08-29/setting-record-straight-about-femas-disaster-fund.
112 Email to CRS from FEMA Legislative Affairs, August 29, 2017.
113 Federal Emergency Management Agency, “FEMA Congressional Advisory: Immediate Needs Funding (INF)
Update,” press release, October 2, 2017.
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specific dollar amount, that includes designation of the entire amount of the request as an
emergency requirement as defined in the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control
Act of 1985, as amended, is transmitted by the President to Congress, to remain available
until September 30, 1997, for the Midwest floods and other disasters: Provided, That the
entire amount is designated by Congress as an emergency requirement pursuant to section
251(b)(2)(D)(i) of the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985, as
amended, and title I, chapter II, of Public Law 102-229.114
The FY2002 annual disaster relief appropriation was the last annual appropriation that included
this type of contingent appropriation.
Reserve Funds
While appropriations requests for the DRF for many years included a special appropriated reserve
within the DRF for unanticipated catastrophic disasters, the concept of a budgetary reserve fund
outside the DRF has also been proposed in the past, which would enable appropriations for
broader non-Stafford disaster relief initiatives.
In FY2002, alongside a request for the DRF that included disaster support costs and funding for
prior-year disasters, the Administration proposed the creation a of $5.6 billion National
Emergency Reserve allowance to support the costs of “significant new disasters.” The DRF, the
Small Business Administration (SBA) Disaster Loan Program, and wildfire programs at the
Department of Agriculture and Department of the Interior would have been the primary recipients
of this funding.115 The annual reserve would have been established in the budget resolution, and
based on the average annual spending on “extraordinarily large events.” It would have been
allocated to the appropriations subcommittees to fund presidential requests for emergency
requirements if two criteria were met: “the events were sudden, urgent, unforeseen, and not
permanent; and adequate funding for a normal year has been provided for the applicable program
by the Appropriations Committees.” Unused reserve amounts could be rolled over into the next
year.116 The proposal was not adopted.
Rescissions and the DRF
Rescissions are cancellations of previously appropriated budget authority. They are made at times
to redirect unobligated balances to other purposes through further appropriation, or to offset a
portion of the cost of the legislation that carried them. From the establishment of the DRF in
FY1948 through FY2003, rescissions were made three times from the DRF.117 From FY2004
through the present day, rescissions have been made ten times.
Five of the ten occurred before the enactment of the BCA:
 In FY2004, $225 million of an earlier $500 million supplemental appropriation to
the DRF was rescinded as an offset for federal funding for certain wildfire costs
in California.118

114 107 Stat. 750.
115 Federal Emergency Management Agency, Justification of Estimates, Fiscal Year 2002 (submitted to Congress),
Washington, DC, 2001, pp. DR-6, DR-7.
116 Office of Management and Budget, Analytical Perspectives, Budget Enforcement Act Preview Report, FY2002,
Executive Office of the President, Washington, DC, 2001, p. 243.
117 P.L. 97-12; P.L. 100-6; and P.L. 104-134.
118 P.L. 108-199, Division H, §102.
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 In FY2006, over $23.4 billion of $60 billion in gross appropriations for the DRF
was rescinded and reappropriated to other disaster recovery programs across the
government.119
 In FY2008 and FY2009, three rescissions of DRF funding for the Hazard
Mitigation Program for the state of Mississippi were made to pay for a grant for
the state to purchase and deploy an interoperable communications system.120
With the restructuring of the DRF appropriation under the BCA, FEMA faced a new challenge.
Periodically, obligated funds that were no longer needed or eligible to be used for their original
purpose would be “deobligated” and returned to the DRF for use. It was unclear whether those
deobligated funds should be assigned to the base, or to the costs of major disasters. Deobligated
funds that had been appropriated without a designation were ultimately considered to be a part of
the base, as they were appropriated without a specified intent.
These were not insignificant amounts—in FY2013, FEMA recovered $910 million.121 Because
the base is spent at a much slower rate than the disaster relief-designated portion of the DRF, a
sizeable unobligated balance accrued. Both the Obama Administration and Trump Administration
proposed rescinding portions of the unobligated recovered funds, including a request from the
Trump Administration to rescind $250 million in FY2020. From FY2014 through FY2017,
almost $2.5 billion was rescinded from the DRF, which offset a portion of the cost of the annual
DHS appropriations bills.122
The appropriations committees took a different approach in FY2019, specifically including
language in the DHS appropriations act to use unobligated balances to fund part of the existing
DRF appropriation.123 This had the same net effect as rescinding the funds, in that the total net
appropriation was smaller, but also made a statement that the DRF balances were being used for
Stafford Act purposes. For FY2020, the consolidated appropriations act that included DHS
appropriations returned to the more frequently used approach, rescinding $300 million.124
Issues for Congress
The federal government has defined a role for itself in emergency management and disaster
recovery as a backstop for state, local, territorial, and tribal governments, providing limited relief
for individuals and support for mitigation efforts. FEMA’s DRF appropriation funds a great deal
of the federal effort. As the DRF appropriation is simply an amount of budget authority provided
to support disaster activities defined through separately crafted laws and policies, many of the
issues related to the DRF are less about the appropriation than they are about the defined federal
role.

119 P.L. 109-148, Division B.
120 P.L. 101-161, §573; P.L. 110-329, Div. B, §10501; P.L. 111-32, §603.
121 Federal Emergency Management Agency, Disaster Relief Fund: Monthly Report, October 21, 2013, p. 4,
https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1382473085534-116f432263fc32ab01b91b1bbfea8852/
FY13_September_Monthly_DRF_508.pdf.
122 This accumulation of base funds was a temporary issue, as pre-FY2011 budget authority was used up, and most
obligations are now made from disaster relief-designated funding. FEMA’s last monthly report for FY2019 indicated
they had recovered almost $2.6 billion over the course of the fiscal year (reflecting the elevated level of funding
flowing from the DRF in recent years), but $2.3 billion of that went to the major disasters designation, and less than
$300 million to the base.
123 P.L. 116-6, Division A.
124 P.L. 116-93, Division D, §540.
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Should the purpose of the DRF be rescoped?
Despite the magnitude of funding provided through the DRF and the breadth of Stafford Act
relief, other appropriations support additional disaster-related activities in other departments and
agencies. As noted earlier, HUD, USDA, DOT, DOD, and SBA all fund various disaster relief and
recovery programs. With the COVID-19 pandemic, relief and recovery funds have come from a
wide variety of accounts through a range of programs.
At various times in the past, efforts have been made to fund activities through the DRF that are
not part of the current portfolio of Stafford Act programs. The Stafford Act already encompasses a
wide range of emergency management, disaster relief, and disaster response activities. Making
non-Stafford programs eligible for DRF funding is something Congress could choose to do, but it
would not provide any obvious policy or budgetary advantage. Existing non-Stafford programs
have their own funding streams, management, and oversight. Providing their resources through a
new appropriation could complicate their funding stream and congressional oversight. While
making the programs eligible for funding from the DRF could make additional budget authority
available, it would be more transparent and direct for Congress to simply fund the program
through its existing appropriation.
There is no special budgetary treatment for appropriations for the DRF—only for appropriations
which are designated for the costs of major disasters under the BCA. Shifting discretionary
spending out of one appropriations subcommittee’s jurisdiction into another provides no overall
budgetary benefit—the total amount of spending remains the same. Subcommittee allocations are
set and reset every year (sometimes multiple times each year) at the discretion of the House and
Senate appropriations committees, so such a move could well result in no net impact on available
resources.
The concept of a broader funding stream providing discretionary resources for DRF, SBA, and
USDA disaster relief programs has also been considered before. Such an idea, floated by a
previous Administration but rejected by Congress, might have made more resources available in
the immediate aftermath of a disaster, but it is not clear that reorganizing funding would make the
programs subject to more thorough oversight or make them more effective. It could limit the
ability of Congress to provide specific oversight or direction through appropriations to the
separate programs.
Congress could also break up the DRF into appropriations for the individual Stafford Act
programs or groups of programs. This might allow for additional specific congressional oversight
and direction, but it could reduce the flexibility that exists within the DRF to shift its resources to
meet unanticipated disaster needs by segmenting the available resources.
In response to the COVID-19 epidemic, the Administration and Congress used the Stafford Act
for the first time to respond to a public health crisis. As the country emerges from the COVID-19
pandemic, Congress may choose to reexamine a number of issues, including:
 Are the Stafford Act and DRF the best vehicles for providing assistance in
responding to a public health crisis?
 How should Congress approach funding future public health needs?
 What was the interplay between natural disaster authorities and public health
authorities in this situation, and how can that be made more efficient and
effective?
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How much is enough to have on hand?
Appropriations are frequently provided on the basis of what can be spent on a project in a given
fiscal year. This thinking informs part of the funding request, as it includes a basis of spending on
open disasters, where recovery is ongoing. A 10-year average informs the portion of the DRF
budget request that pays for response and recovery from disasters that cost less than $500 million.
Previous and current Administrations have sought additional reserve funds over and above those
projected needs to pay for potential “no notice” events. On the other hand, as noted above, from
FY2014 to FY2017, almost $2.5 billion in funding was rescinded from unobligated balances in
the DRF, and in FY2019, unobligated balances were used to offset appropriations for the DRF. In
the present constrained budget environment, Congress continues to weigh the proper level of
reserves for FEMA to keep available in the DRF.
What accommodations should be made in the federal budget for
disaster relief?
While disaster relief is a relatively small part of the discretionary budget, and an even smaller part
of the overall federal budget, disaster relief spending is anticipated to continue growing in the
coming years. In modern history, Congress has been generally willing to provide resources for
major disasters on an as-needed basis. However, discussions of deficit and debt continue in
Congress, and may increase in frequency and volume as the Budget Control Act nears expiration
in FY2021. The central question is this: Does disaster relief represent enough of a priority for the
federal government to maintain the status quo notwithstanding potential increasing costs?
When budget controls were put in place in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2010s, exceptions were
provided to help ensure relief and recovery efforts would continue to be funded. With the
expiration of the Budget Control Act statutory caps on discretionary spending, one limitation on
disaster relief spending—albeit one with a limited practical effect, as noted above—will go away.
The allowable adjustment for disaster relief will expire as well, which may have more of an
impact, as Congress has used it to move disaster relief spending more fully into the annual
appropriations process. The adjustment has effectively allowed most of the annual DRF
appropriation to be provided without competing against other homeland security priorities for the
discretionary funding provided under the Homeland Security appropriations subcommittee’s
allocation. Congress may consider whether they want that process to continue.
Congress may also debate whether to try to limit disaster relief spending. The most direct means
of doing this would not be to change the DRF appropriation, but by changing the underlying laws
that authorize the programs it funds. Implementing relief limits or deductibles for states or
smaller jurisdictions, larger nonfederal cost shares, or changes in the declaration process may
prove unpopular, and having to vote for them once in more durable authorizing legislation may be
more practical than doing so annually in appropriations legislation.

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Appendix. General Disaster Relief Appropriations,
FY1964-FY2020

Table A-1. Nominal Dollar Disaster Relief Appropriations, FY1964-FY2020
Thousands of dollars of budget authority
Supplemental
(includes
Fiscal
Annual
contingency
Fiscal Year
Net Fiscal Year
Year
Appropriations
appropriations)
Total
Total
1964
20,000
50,000
70,000
70,000
1965
20,000
35,000
55,000
55,000
1966
55,000
65,000
120,000
120,000
1967
15,000
9,550
24,550
24,550
1968
20,000

20,000
20,000
1969
10,000
35,000
45,000
45,000
1970
170,000
75,000
245,000
245,000
1971
65,000
25,000
90,000
90,000
1972
85,000

85,000
85,000
1973
92,500
500,000
592,500
592,500
1974
400,000
32,600
432,600
432,600
1975
200,000

200,000
200,000
1976
187,500

187,500
187,500
1977
100,000
200,000
300,000
300,000
1978
150,000
300,000
450,000
450,000
1979
200,000
194,000
394,000
394,000
1980
193,600
870,000
1,063,600
1,063,600
1981
375,570

375,570
367,570
1982
301,694

301,694
301,694
1983
130,000

130,000
130,000
1984




1985
100,000

100,000
100,000
1986
120,000
250,000
370,000
350,000
1987
120,000
57,475
177,475
170,000
1988
120,000

120,000
115,000
1989
100,000
1,108,000
1,208,000
1,208,000
1990
98,450
1,150,000
1,248,450
1,248,450
1991




1992
185,000
4,136,000
4,321,000
4,269,209
1993
292,095
2,000,000
2,292,095
2,292,000
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Supplemental
(includes
Fiscal
Annual
contingency
Fiscal Year
Net Fiscal Year
Year
Appropriations
appropriations)
Total
Total
1994
292,000
4,709,000
5,001,000
5,001,000
1995
320,000
6,550,000
6,870,000
6,870,000
1996
222,000

222,000
(882,000)
1997
1,320,000
3,300,000
4,620,000
4,600,000
1998
320,000
1,600,000
1,920,000
1,920,000
1999
307,745
1,806,000
2,113,745
2,113,745
2000
300,000
2,480,425
2,780,425
2,777,525
2001
300,000
1,300,000
1,600,000
1,547,100
2002
664,000
9,537,571
10,201,571
10,127,094
2003
800,000
1,425,300
2,225,300
2,200,823
2004
1,800,000
2,500,000
4,300,000
4,023,000
2005
2,042,380
66,500,000
68,542,380
68,427,380
2006
1,770,000
6,000,000
7,770,000
(16,390,800)a
2007
1,500,000
4,110,000
5,610,000
5,742,500
2008
1,400,000
11,757,000
13,157,000
12,934,850
2009
1,400,000

1,400,000
1,178,400
2010
1,600,000
5,100,000
6,700,000
6,573,400
2011
2,650,000

2,650,000
2,650,000
2012
700,000
6,400,000
7,100,000
7,076,000
2013
7,007,926
11,487,735
18,495,661
18,468,661
2014
6,220,908

6,220,908
5,896,386
2015
7,033,464

7,033,464
6,729,464
2016
7,374,693

7,374,693
6,328,814
2017
7,328,515
7,400,000
14,728,515
13,996,140
2018
7,900,720
42,170,000
50,070,720
45,010,720
2019
12,558,000

12,558,000
12,005,000
2020
17,863,259
45,000,000
62,863,259
62,560,259
Total
96,922,019
252,225,656
349,147,675
314,412,134
Source: CRS analysis of appropriations acts.
Notes: FY2013 numbers do not reflect the impact of sequestration. Supplemental column includes contingent
appropriations and all appropriations under the heading of “Disaster Relief” or “Disaster Relief Fund” including
the language “for an additional amount.” Reductions reflected in the Net Total column include transfers and
rescissions specifically enumerated in appropriations acts.
a. This negative total is the result of a $23.4 bil ion rescission from the DRF, which offset the cost of other
disaster assistance and damage repairs conducted by other agencies.


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Table A-2. FY2020 Dollar Disaster Relief Appropriations, FY1964-FY2020
Thousands of dollars of budget authority
Supplemental
Appropriations
Fiscal
Annual
(includes contingency
Fiscal Year Net Fiscal Year
Year
Appropriations
appropriations)
Total
Total
1964
157,627
394,067
551,693
551,693
1965
155,469
272,070
427,539
427,539
1966
416,146
491,809
907,955
907,955
1967
111,053
70,704
181,756
181,756
1968
142,855

142,855
142,855
1969
67,161
235,065
302,226
302,226
1970
1,081,619
477,185
1,558,804
1,558,804
1971
386,697
148,730
535,427
535,427
1972
474,838

474,838
474,838
1973
494,131
2,670,978
3,165,109
3,165,109
1974
1,971,701
160,694
2,132,395
2,132,395
1975
898,497

898,497
898,497
1976
786,060

786,060
786,060
1977
390,812
781,624
1,172,436
1,172,436
1978
551,668
1,103,335
1,655,003
1,655,003
1979
676,818
656,513
1,333,331
1,333,331
1980
592,486
2,662,514
3,255,000
3,255,000
1981
1,034,776

1,034,776
1,012,735
1982
771,872

771,872
771,872
1983
317,030

317,030
317,030
1984




1985
224,491

224,491
224,491
1986
263,861
549,710
813,570
769,593
1987
256,462
122,835
379,297
363,321
1988
247,924

247,924
237,594
1989
198,757
2,202,232
2,400,990
2,400,990
1990
190,152
2,221,182
2,411,334
2,411,334
1991




1992
328,648
7,347,498
7,676,145
7,584,140
1993
503,999
3,450,927
3,954,926
3,954,762
1994
495,110
7,984,490
8,479,599
8,479,599
1995
526,931
10,785,610
11,312,540
11,312,540
1996
358,031

358,031
(1,422,447)
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Supplemental
Appropriations
Fiscal
Annual
(includes contingency
Fiscal Year Net Fiscal Year
Year
Appropriations
appropriations)
Total
Total
1997
2,085,013
5,212,531
7,297,544
7,265,953
1998
501,274
2,506,372
3,007,647
3,007,647
1999
476,231
2,794,760
3,270,991
3,270,991
2000
452,771
3,743,546
4,196,317
4,191,940
2001
441,220
1,911,953
2,353,173
2,275,371
2002
961,746
13,814,334
14,776,080
14,668,206
2003
1,126,687
2,007,333
3,134,019
3,099,547
2004
2,470,703
3,431,533
5,902,236
5,522,022
2005
2,710,366
88,249,649
90,960,015
90,807,403
2006
2,270,374
7,696,183
9,966,556
(21,024,431)
2007
1,872,239
5,129,934
7,002,173
7,167,554
2008
1,688,953
14,183,583
15,872,535
15,604,535
2009
1,689,132

1,689,132
1,421,767
2010
1,896,587
6,045,371
7,941,958
7,791,891
2011
3,069,459

3,069,459
3,069,459
2012
794,990
7,268,480
8,063,470
8,036,213
2013
7,847,468
12,863,953
20,711,420
20,681,185
2014
6,857,974

6,857,974
6,500,219
2015
7,711,822

7,711,822
7,378,502
2016
8,030,143

8,030,143
6,891,308
2017
7,846,700
7,923,239
15,769,939
14,985,779
2018
8,253,171
44,051,204
52,304,375
47,018,649
2019
12,836,037

12,836,037
12,270,793
2020
17,863,259
45,000,000
62,863,259
62,560,259
Total
116,828,000
318,623,729
435,451,729
392,361,244
Source: CRS analysis of appropriations acts.
Notes: Deflator used was drawn from “Historical Tables: Table 1.3—Summary of Receipts, Outlays, and
Surpluses or Deficits (—) in Current Dol ars, Constant (FY2009) Dol ars, and as Percentages of GDP: 1940—
2023.” FY2013 numbers do not reflect the impact of sequestration. Supplemental column includes contingent
appropriations and all appropriations under the heading of “Disaster Relief” or “Disaster Relief Fund” including
the language “for an additional amount.” Reductions reflected in the Net Total column include transfers and
rescissions specifically enumerated in appropriations acts.
a. This negative total is the result of a $23.4 bil ion (nominal dol ars) rescission from the DRF, which offset the
cost of other disaster assistance and damage repairs conducted by other agencies.


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Author Information

William L. Painter

Specialist in Homeland Security and Appropriations



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