Skip to main content
Find a Lawyer
Please enter a legal issue and/or a location
Begin typing to search, use arrow keys to navigate, use enter to select

Legal Protections During Disaster Assistance and Disaster Relief

Hurricanes, earthquakes, and tornadoes don't discriminate. Disaster preparedness and emergency planning aren't always enough. Natural disasters can hurt everyone. People discriminate, though. You can experience discrimination when you're most vulnerable. This can include before, after, or during a disaster or emergency.

Discrimination is difficult at any time. Discrimination and accessibility concerns are even more urgent when dealing with a disaster. The stakes involved are incredibly high when your world has been upended. Civil rights laws are available to protect you in your jurisdiction during these difficult times.

Laws Protecting Disaster Survivors' Civil Rights

Civil rights statutes and other state laws may apply to disaster-related scenarios. The federal government has also enacted laws protecting disaster victims' civil rights. These federal protections include:

The Stafford Act

The Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act of 1988 (Stafford Act) is the primary law related to a disaster or emergency. The act establishes the federal authority for most disaster response activities.

When the president declares a disaster, a response from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is triggered to provide help to the disaster area. FEMA is a federal agency and since 2003 has been part of the Department of Homeland Security. States and local governments are responsible for carrying out the disaster recovery process. They receive help from the federal government.

Discrimination Protection for Disaster Victims

The Stafford Act applies to both disaster assistance programs and private relief organizations. When federal assistance functions are being carried out at a disaster site, the act prohibits discrimination based on:

  • Color
  • Race
  • Nationality (including limited English proficiency)
  • Sex
  • Religion
  • Age
  • Disability
  • Economic status or low income

Federal assistance functions include:

  • Distribution of supplies
  • Processing of applications
  • Other relief and help activities

The Stafford Act also states that no area is precluded from federal assistance based on income or population. The aim is to allow equal access to resources.

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act has coverage like that of the Stafford Act. Title VI prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin. It applies to programs receiving federal financial aid. This includes health care providers and law enforcement agencies.

Accessibility Protection for Disaster Victims with Disabilities

Accessibility issues concern all disaster victims, but they are especially relevant to people with disabilities. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 protects people with disabilities. The act seeks nondiscrimination in all programs receiving funds from the federal government and operated by the federal government.

The Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of 2006 (PKEMRA) establishes a disability coordinator. The coordinator ensures that the needs of people with disabilities are addressed.

Limitations on Civil Rights Protection

The federal government protects disaster victims' civil rights. There are limitations to the protection, however. For example, the Stafford Act limits discrimination to intentional discrimination. It doesn't include disparate impact discrimination. This is a key difference between rights under the Stafford Act and rights under Title VI.

The Stafford Act is also silent on voting rights. And it doesn't speak to the participation of displaced people in recovery planning and mitigation. Displaced people don't have the right to be provided with housing. Any housing assistance is provided at the federal government's discretion.

Protect Your Civil Rights in a Disaster

Recovering from a disaster or emergency is an exhausting endeavor. Your stress during recovery efforts is further aggravated if you're mistreated. Have you been denied federal disaster assistance? Was the denial based on race, national origin, sex, or another protected characteristic?

If you've been affected by a disaster and think your civil rights have been violated, take the first step. Protect your equal rights. Talk to a civil rights attorney to gain additional information and to learn more about federal civil rights laws. There may be legal aid or human services to help you.

Was this helpful?

You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help

Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.

Or contact an attorney near you:

Next Steps

Contact a qualified civil rights attorney to help you protect your rights.

Begin typing to search, use arrow keys to navigate, use enter to select

Help Me Find a Do-It-Yourself Solution

Copied to clipboard

Find a Lawyer

More Options