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Why Do We Declare a National Emergency?

By Stephanie Rabiner, Esq. | Last updated on

In the last two weeks, President Obama declared a national emergency in states across the Midwest and the Southeastern United States, ordering federal agencies to release disaster funds to support the recovery of the flooded and tornado-hit regions.

Though it might seem silly to issue a declaration of emergency for a situation that is clearly dire, the act of doing so is actually incredibly important for states seeking federal aid.

Under the National Emergencies Act, the President must declare a national emergency in order to release federal disaster funding coordinated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other federal agencies.

How he designates that emergency is equally as important as the declaration itself.

At the federal level, a national emergency can be designated either as a Major Disaster, a Presidential Major Disaster, or just an Emergency.

A Declaration of Major Disaster, which is what President Obama declared this week, is designed to provide supplemental aid to states and local governments who cannot handle an emergency themselves.

A Declaration of Presidential Major Disaster also includes funding for long-term recovery and offers more direct aid to victims, businesses and states.

A general Declaration of Emergency is more limited in scope, and is often designed to prevent a major disaster from occurring.

Keep in mind that these rules apply only to a national emergency. State and local governments can also issue a declaration of emergency under their own laws, which will allow them to tap into their own funds.

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