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Justice, Fairness, Inclusion, and Performance.

The U.S. Emergency Management System: The Need for Intergovernmental Cooperation

January 11, 2018

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The number, diversity, and magnitude of disasters in the U.S., both natural and human-made, are increasing. For natural disasters, alone, there was more than $305 billion in damage in the United States in 2017, making it the most expensive year on record for natural disasters in the nation. Because each disaster, by its very nature, is unique, different protocols, responders, and funding methods cause some significant challenges during all phases of emergency management. Yet, all disasters have commonalities with respect to intergovernmental relations.

With natural disasters, the role of the Federal government in preparedness and recovery, and how it interacts with state and local governments, is relatively well developed, but still needs improvement. With human-made disasters, such as terrorist attacks or acts of mass violence, the intergovernmental path is bifurcated and disjointed, making it difficult, if not impossible, for local governments to navigate. The interacting network of institutions at national, state and local levels of government must be improved to enable government to act in a more coherent manner to mitigate the impact of all types of disasters.


The locus of all disasters is local. If a local government is unable to handle a disaster on its own, it notifies the state that it needs state and/or federal assistance. For natural disasters, the Governor’s Office, in conjunction with the State Emergency Management Department or Homeland Security Department, notifies the President and FEMA of the need for Federal assistance. The President, with advice from FEMA, decides whether to provide or deny federal assistance. When a decision is made to provide assistance, the President declares the disaster site to be a "federal disaster area." This declaration enables FEMA to provide individual assistance and aid to public entities from the National Disaster Relief Fund, as authorized by the Stafford Act. This Act provides the statutory authority for most Federal disaster response activities pertaining to FEMA assistance programs.

If the disaster is a human-induced event, the disaster site is declared a crime scene by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and then handled by the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security. The Federal government's role in recovery from human-made disasters has been primarily situational, leaving traumatized local communities to figure out which agency is in charge, what assistance might be available, and whom to contact for help, unless the incident is of sufficient magnitude to warrant either a Presidential Declaration of Disaster or an Emergency Declaration. The following two incidents illustrate the nature of some of the gaps that exist in the current intergovernmental system for both natural and human-made disasters:

A Natural Disaster: Louisiana Flooding
  • August 2016, devastating floods hit 20 Louisiana parishes, dumping up to 6.9 trillion gallons of water over the area during a course of 48 hours. Thirteen people died in the flooding and 30,000 people were rescued.
  • This disaster caught people off guard, many without flood insurance since their homes were not located in a flood zone. Flood insurance is provided through the U.S. Flood Insurance Program and administered by the Mitigation Directorate of FEMA.
  • FEMA helped homeowners to clean out and repair their premises, offering grants of up to $33,000. These grants came after the local governments declared to the State that the disaster was beyond their capability to respond and recover.
  • Assistance during the recovery phase has received less emphasis than mitigation/preparedness despite that, in most cases, expenditures in any phase of emergency management helps in the other phases.
    • Every dollar invested in mitigation eventually saves up to five dollars or more in disaster response costs and even more in recovery costs.
    • The same is true for time and funding invested in preparedness activities, such as planning, training, exercises, technology upgrades, standards, certifications, and accreditations.
A Human-made Disaster: The San Bernardino County Terrorist Attack
  • December 2015, a Public Health Department Environmental Health Services worker opened fire on his fellow employees killing 14 people, injuring 24 and traumatizing another 35.
  • Federal emergency relief programs did not meet the needs of local government agencies for incidents such as this
    • Forms from the California Office of Emergency Services (OES) for reporting damage estimates and reimbursement do not have categories for many of the types of expenses associated with such an incident
    • FEMA does not have a mechanism for post terrorism reimbursement.
  • Of the more than $24 million in expenses related to the San Bernardino attack less than $5 million will have been reimbursed.
  • There is a need for a more highly defined structure and clearer commitment of federal resources to reimburse local response costs for recovery expenses, unique to terrorist attacks and other acts of mass violence, deaths, and destruction.


  1. The intergovernmental emergency management system should be clear, seamless and work equally well in all phases of a disaster, whether it is natural or human-made. The necessary preparedness, mitigation, response, and recovery should be a rigorous and coordinated intergovernmental, interagency, and interdisciplinary effort with regards to planning, training, exercising, technology, and standards.
  2. With few exceptions, disaster response and recovery, regardless of the nature of the emergency, should be built on FEMA's all-hazard approach on an intergovernmental, interagency, and interdisciplinary basis encompassing in-depth planning, training, exercises, standards, accreditations, and certifications. As such, new plans for authorization and funding should be implemented (explained in detail in the full report).
  3. For both human-induced and natural disasters, the recovery phase must be better funded by Congress and DHS, for FEMA, states, tribes, and local governments. At the federal level, Congress and DHS should ensure that FEMA has the necessary support/funding to drive robust recoveries after megadisasters, as well as other more frequent disasters.