FEMA Takes on COVID-19

Learn more about NRDC’s response to COVID-19.

Drive-thru testing facility for COVID-19 in Holmdel, N.J. (Photo by: K.C. Wilsey/FEMA)

The COVID-19 pandemic’s unprecedented scale of economic, health, and social impacts in the United States has challenged traditional disaster management, requiring unconventional application of federal disaster laws. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)—more commonly known for assisting communities afflicted by extreme hurricanes and floods—has taken the lead for coordinating the federal response to COVID-19.

The agency is in  “uncharted territory” given the unfolding scope of the pandemic, responding to a crisis that “touches every corner of the country, not just a particular geographic region like typical natural disasters.” As of April 21, a nationwide Emergency Declaration and 56 individual Major Disaster Declarations had been issued for every state, five territories, and the District of Columbia in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Flexibility and further innovative uses of the assistance that could be made available under those Major Disaster Declarations may be necessary for a robust response that will better protect workers and citizens.

The Stafford Act, which is the primary legal authority that governs handling United States disasters, directs FEMA to be the federal agency to manage the current crisis and coordinate the agency’s assistance.

However, not all disasters are created equal concerning the types of assistance available. For the COVID-19 pandemic, only a subset of potential assistance has been activated for states and territories working to protect the safety and well-being of their residents. I’ll explain why, and what further might be done.

First, the process, and response so far:

Stafford Act Assistance Already Provided for the COVID-19 Pandemic

On March 13, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, President Trump issued an Emergency Declaration under the Stafford Act in all U.S. states and territories “to avoid governors needing to request individual emergency declarations.” Under this Declaration, FEMA stated it would reimburse states and territorial governments for “emergency protective measures” via its Public Assistance grants program.

A week later, the Trump administration issued a Major Disaster Declaration for New York that made available a broader array of potential assistance than the Emergency Declaration. This action was unprecedented since infectious disease pandemics were considered outside the scope of eligible disasters under the Stafford Act. Traditionally, Major Disaster Declarations have only been issued for “natural catastrophes”, like Hurricane Harvey, or a terrorist-related event, like September 11. President Trump has since issued a Major Disaster Declaration for every state and territory.

Similar to the nationwide Emergency Declaration, FEMA made available direct assistance and grants to reimburse states and territories for “emergency protective measures.” To date, FEMA has provided $5.5 billion worth of assistance for emergency protective measures. FEMA has stated emergency protective measures may include, but not be limited to, the following:

  • Management, control, and reduction of immediate threats to public health and safety:
    • Emergency Operation Center costs
    • Training specific to the declared event
    • Disinfection of eligible public facilities
    • Technical assistance to state, tribal, territorial, or local governments on emergency management and control of immediate threats to public health and safety
  • Emergency Medical Care
  • Related medical facility services and supplies
  • Temporary medical facilities and/or enhanced medical/hospital capacity (for treatment when existing facilities are reasonably forecasted to become overloaded in the near term and cannot accommodate the patient load or to quarantine potentially infected persons)
  • Use of specialized medical equipment
  • Medical waste disposal
  • Emergency medical transport
  • All sheltering must be conducted in accordance with standards and/or guidance approved by HHS/CDC and must be implemented in a manner that incorporates social distancing measures
  • Medical sheltering (e.g., when existing facilities are reasonably forecasted to become overloaded in the near future and cannot accommodate needs)
  •  Household pet sheltering and containment actions related to household pets in accordance with CDC guidelines
  •  Purchase and distribution of food, water, ice, medicine, and other consumable supplies, to include personal protective equipment and hazardous material suits
  • Movement of supplies and persons
  •  Security and law enforcement
  • Communications of general health and safety information to the public
  • Search and rescue to locate and recover members of the population requiring assistance
  • Reimbursement for state, tribe, territory, and/or local government force account overtime costs

In addition, FEMA has made available Individual Assistance grants for crisis counseling to some, but not all, recipients of a Major Disaster Declaration.

So, what could, and should FEMA provide next?

Additional Stafford Act Assistance and Limitations on FEMA

A range of resources could be made available that would be helpful to the national response to the COVID-19 pandemic:

Disaster Unemployment Assistance Program has not been activated. This program gives unemployment benefits to individuals who have become unemployed as a direct result of a Presidentially declared major disaster, and who are ineligible for state unemployment insurance.

Individuals and Household Program (IHP), has not been made available. IHP provides financial and direct services to individuals and households affected by a disaster who have uninsured or underinsured necessary expenses and serious needs. For example, IHP may provide rental assistance to families who have been displaced due to storm-related damage to their home.

Hazard Mitigation Grant Program has not been authorized. This program helps communities implement hazard mitigation measures following a Major Disaster Declaration, The program’s purpose is “to enact mitigation measures that reduce the risk of loss of life and property from future disasters.” 

So, why haven’t these programs been activated? The reasons aren’t nefarious, but relate to the bounds of the Stafford Act and available assistance.

The Stafford Act expressly prohibits FEMA from duplicating benefits of another agency or program, even if it is requested. For example, FEMA may have decided not to provide Disaster Unemployment Assistance, as Congress has provided funds for state unemployment insurance and the Paycheck Protection Program. Additionally, the uniqueness of the COVID-19 pandemic, as opposed to a hurricane, makes some assistance programs, such as IHP for rental assistance, not clearly adaptable.

Unquestionably, the COVID-19 pandemic necessitates that more be done. What should be done?

  • States and territories should continue to request more types of Stafford Act assistance by clearly demonstrating how those programs would help address the COVID-19 pandemic. For instance:
    •  Expanding the use of Individual Assistance grants, such as IHP’s Other Needs Program that allows FEMA to cover “other necessary expenses or serious needs” as determined by the agency. This program could provide FEMA flexibility to respond where other programs fall short if states and territories can justify the need.
    • Providing Hazard Mitigation Grant Program assistance to update states' mandatory hazard mitigation plans. Such updated plans should be required to include how to prepare for and respond to an infectious disease pandemic, including if such a pandemic occurred concurrently with an extreme-weather disaster. This would help prepare for future waves of COVID-19.
  • FEMA should continue to look at innovative ways for providing assistance during the crisis. For instance, FEMA recently provided for a non-traditional use of Public Assistance funds to deliver food directly to at-risk individuals sheltering in place. FEMA could consider similar actions for those without access to water service given the public health link between washing one’s hands and slowing the spread of the virus.
  • Congress could eliminate some of the ambiguity concerning the Stafford Act by stating in a future COVID-19 stimulus bill that FEMA is authorized to provide certain types of assistance, given the unique circumstances. However, such assistance should be limited to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Given the unprecedented nature of this crisis, flexibility and innovative uses of disaster assistance are crucial for protecting public health and safety.

About the Authors

Joel Scata

Water and Climate Attorney, Water Initiatives, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

Join Us

When you sign up you'll become a member of NRDC's Activist Network. We will keep you informed with the latest alerts and progress reports.