The Stafford Act: An Agenda for Reform

Moss, M.
Center for Catastrophe Preparedness and Response, New York University,

The Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (the Stafford Act) is the principal legislation governing the federal response to disasters within the United States. The act spells out - among other things - how disasters are declared, the types of assistance to be provided, and the cost sharing arrangements between federal, state, and local governments. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is the primary federal agency responsible for responding to disasters within the United States, carrying out the provisions of the Stafford Act, and distributing assistance provided by the act. The Stafford Act establishes two incident levels - emergencies and major disasters. Emergencies tend to be smaller events where a limited federal role will suffice. Major disasters are larger events - but this can run the gamut from a blizzard in Buffalo to a major earthquake in southern California that affects millions. In other words, no distinction, and no special response, is provided in the Stafford Act following catastrophes such as major earthquakes and hurricanes. The Stafford Act should be amended to establish a response level for catastrophic events. The Stafford Act does not adequately recognize 21st century threats. For example, the definition of a major disaster does not cover chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear attacks or accidents. The act should further be amended to encompass 21st century threats.
This report does not focus on the performance of government agencies immediately following a disaster- these have been well documented by others. Rather, this report focuses on the federal role in the long-term recovery and rebuilding process following catastrophes, and what can be done to improve the effectiveness of the federal government in aiding these efforts.

Wagner Faculty