NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Defining Disaster At FEMA

April 2, 1999

Congress and the General Accounting Office have been urging officials of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for years to put in writing the formal guideline it uses to determine when a president should declare a disaster. Finally, the agency has done so -- and the result irks some members of Congress. They complain that the guideline is not particularly strong.

  • A portion of the rule that establishes a minimum threshold of $1 million in damages per disaster before the federal government would step in is unpopular among small states -- which claim it would negatively affect them.
  • The agency will also weigh such factors as intense localized damage, a state's population compared to the damage, and whether elderly or other "special populations" are affected.

Over FEMA's 20-year history, it has spent nearly $60 billion on federal disaster aid.

  • Since 1983, it has declared 595 major disasters.
  • It declared 20 that year, and since then the number has varied from year to year -- but the trend has basically been upward.
  • FEMA issued the most disaster declarations in 1996, during which there were 75.
  • Last year, the number was 65 -- and there have been nine announcements so far this year.

Source: Barbara J. Saffir, "FEMA Sets Criteria for Disaster Relief," Washington Times, April 2, 1999.


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