The Stafford Act and Priorities for Reform

During the past fifty years, federal disaster policy in the United States has been shaped by an ongoing conflict between proponents who favor federal intervention following a disaster and those who believe disaster response should be the responsibility of state and local governments and charity. This article explores the existing federal disaster policy landscape within the United States with a focus on the Stafford Act, the cultural and political forces that produced it, and how the current system is ill equipped to aid in the response and recovery from major catastrophes. The Stafford Act defines how federal disasters are declared, determines the types of assistance to be provided by the federal government, and establishes cost sharing arrangements among federal, state, and local governments. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) carries out the provisions of the Stafford Act and distributes much of the assistance provided by the Act. With the establishment of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the threat of domestic terrorism, and large-scale natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, the limits of the Stafford Act and FEMA have been shown. We look at several areas where the shortcomings of the Stafford Act have emerged and propose directions for reform.