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The Stafford Act Explained

The Stafford Act gives the president the power to make disaster declarations during an emergency. But what is the Stafford Act? Where did it come from? What is the scope of the president's power? This article has answers.

What Is the Stafford Act?

The Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (the Stafford Act) gives the president the power to declare a national emergency as a response to a national disaster. This declaration allows the president to access funds and disaster relief assistance set aside by Congress.

The declaration is mainly intended to help states get assistance from the federal government during an emergency/disaster while they carry out their responsibilities to aid their citizens.

History of the Stafford Act

Prior to 1950, Congress had to pass separate laws to deal with emergencies that affected the nation. But in 1950, Congress passed a comprehensive Federal Disaster Relief Act giving the president power to provide federal assistance upon the request of a governor. Later in 1988, the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, which provides funds for states, was passed.

The Stafford Act has been used quite often, about 56 times a year. It has been used before as a response to disasters like Hurricane Katrina and the Oklahoma City bombing.

It has, however, been very rarely invoked for public health emergencies. Notable examples when the Act was used to address a public health emergency include:

  • When President Clinton invoked the act over the West Nile Virus outbreak in New York and New Jersey
  • When President Trump invoked the act over the COVID-19 pandemic

How Does the Stafford Act Work?

The Stafford Act has seven titles. The Act creates and outlines the appropriate level of response required by the federal government after a disaster is declared.

When the president issues an emergency declaration, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will automatically get the power to coordinate relief resources to assist overwhelmed state and local governments.

Under a national emergency, FEMA's powers are usually connected with natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes. However, FEMA has also been mobilized to address pandemics like COVID-19.

Two Types of Disaster Declarations

The incident levels can either be emergencies or major disasters. Emergencies require only a limited federal intervention while major disasters are usually more massive in scale.

The State Needs to Ask for Assistance

Before the president invokes the Stafford Act, the following must happen:

  • The governor of a given state must first exhaust the state's emergency plan,
  • The governor must decide that the state can't handle the disaster, and
  • If the governor believes the state can't handle the disaster with the resources the state has, they must ask for help from the president.

The governor should inform the president about the resources the state actually has. The president then decides whether a declaration is needed and provides federal assistance where deemed necessary.

What Happens After an Emergency Is Declared?

After the president declares the emergency, FEMA will draft a document called "the FEMA state agreement." The agreement outlines a number of things, including:

  • Period of the disaster
  • Areas eligible for assistance
  • Type of assistance required
  • Cost-sharing provisions
  • Other relevant terms and conditions

What Kind of Resources Are Available?

The Stafford Act authorizes three types of assistance from the federal government. These are:

  • Individual assistance: Assistance directly given to individuals and businesses affected by an emergency/disaster
  • Public Assistance: Funding and expertise allocated to state and local governments.
  • Hazard mitigation assistance: Funding aimed at eliminating or reducing the long-term effects of the disaster.

The Stafford Act: Can the President Use It to Quarantine Citizens?

Likely not. While this act gives the president a considerable amount of power, it does not explicitly give the president the ability to quarantine citizens at a time of disaster. Rather, the federal government, in times of health emergencies, may have the power to quarantine citizens under the commerce clause of the Constitution.

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