What is the “pecking order” in disaster declarations?  I thought I understood that but then I saw that New Jersey and New York had been elevated to a “major disaster” and then I realized I wasn’t sure.  Here is how it really works (from the “horses mouth,” the FEMA website)

Breezy Point Neighborhood Of The Queens Borough Of New York City
The Breezy Point neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City

The initial First Response to a disaster is the job of local government’s emergency services with help from nearby municipalities, the state and volunteer agencies.

  • In a catastrophic disaster if the governor requests, federal resources can be mobilized through the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for search and rescue, electrical power, food, water, shelter and other basic human needs.
  • It is the long-term Recovery phase of disaster, which places the most severe financial strain on local or state government. Damage to public facilities and infrastructure, often not insured, can overwhelm even a large city.
  • A governor’s request for a major disaster declaration could mean an infusion of federal funds, but the governor must also commit significant state funds and resources for recovery efforts.

An Emergency Declaration (which is what the other ten states in the area have as of now) is more limited in scope and without the long-term federal recovery programs of a Major Disaster Declaration.

  • Generally, federal assistance and funding are provided to meet a specific emergency need or to help prevent a major disaster from occurring.

A Major Disaster can be a result of hurricanes, earthquakes, flood, tornados or major fires; the President then determines warrants supplemental federal aid.

  • The event must be clearly more than state or local governments can handle alone.
  • If declared, funding comes from the President’s Disaster Relief Fund, managed by FEMA and disaster aid programs of other participating federal agencies.

A Presidential Major Disaster Declaration puts into motion long-term federal recovery programs, some of which are matched by state programs and designed to help disaster victims, businesses and public entities.

Seaside Heights New Jersey
Seaside Heights, New Jersey


The Major Disaster Process

A Major Disaster Declaration usually follows these steps:

  • Local Government Responds, supplemented by neighboring communities and volunteer agencies. If overwhelmed, turn to the state for assistance;
  • The State Responds with state resources, such as the National Guard and state agencies;
  • Damage Assessment by local, state, federal, and volunteer organizations determines losses and recovery needs;
  • A Major Disaster Declaration is requested by the governor, based on the damage assessment, and an agreement to commit state funds and resources to the long-term recovery;
  • FEMA Evaluates the request and recommends action to the White House based on the disaster, the local community and the state’s ability to recover;
  • The President approves the request or FEMA informs the governor it has been denied. This decision process could take a few hours or several weeks depending on the nature of the disaster.

So now you know!