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Helen Kerstein

Budget and Policy Post
March 24, 2020


COVID-19 Disaster Declarations
and Funding Implications

Updated April 6, 2020 to reflect the enactment of H.R. 748, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.

The emergence of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is a public health emergency unlike any the nation has experienced in recent decades. As a result of this emergency, the federal government is marshaling resources to support states as they engage in response efforts, as well as to mitigate some of the associated economic impacts to businesses, local communities, and individuals. In this post, we discuss federal assistance available to states as a result of the President’s emergency and major disaster declarations. In other posts, we discuss some of the other types of assistance that the federal government is providing in response to COVID-19, including other funding provided through recent federal legislation.

President Made Emergency and Major Disaster Declarations. In response to the emergence of COVID-19, President Trump has made two declarations under the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (Stafford Act) that enable states to access federal assistance. Most notably, on March 13, 2020, President Trump declared a national state of emergency, which covers all states and territories. On March 22, 2020, at the request of Governor Newsom, President Trump also declared a major disaster for California. (Since this declaration, the President has declared major disaster declarations for many other states.)

As we discuss further in our post How California Governments Respond to Disasters, emergency and major disaster declarations are two types of federal disaster declarations that the President can make when faced with emergency situations that overwhelm the capacity of local communities and states to respond. Most frequently, these declarations are made as a result of natural disasters, such as floods and wildfires. However, in some cases, they can also be made during other types of emergencies, including public safety or health emergencies. For example, emergency declarations were made to facilitate the federal government’s provision of assistance to Flint, Michigan in addressing the contamination of its water supplies, as well as to New York and New Jersey in combatting the West Nile virus. A major disaster declaration was also made to facilitate assistance to a Texas community affected by an explosion at a fertilizer plant. (In addition to the declarations under the Stafford Act, President Trump has also made declarations under the Public Health Service Act and National Emergencies Act in response to COVID-19. We discuss some of the implications of the declaration under the National Emergencies Act in another post.)

Emergency and Major Disaster Declarations Make California Eligible for Federal Funds for Certain Activities. The President’s emergency and major disaster declarations make California—and other states and territories that have received these declarations—eligible for additional federal funding. Specifically, the emergency declaration enables the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to reimburse states for costs associated with measures taken before, during, and immediately after the incident to save lives and to protect public health and safety. Some of these costs could include those associated with activating the State Emergency Operations Center (a location the state uses to coordinate much of its emergency-response efforts), disinfecting eligible facilities, providing temporary medical facilities, providing temporary housing for homeless, purchasing equipment and supplies (such as face masks and other personal protective equipment), and directing law enforcement to provide necessary assistance. Additionally, the major disaster declaration enables FEMA to reimburse California for the costs associated with providing crisis counseling. (As we discuss further below, funding for additional types of activities could be made available under this major disaster declaration in the future.) The state must meet various requirements to secure the funding available under these declarations. Most notably, the state must agree to provide a 25 percent funding match. (The federal government covers the remaining 75 percent of eligible costs.)

In addition to making California and other states eligible for additional funding, the President’s emergency declaration also has some other key implications. Notably, it deploys FEMA staff to states and makes businesses eligible for a low-interest loan program administered by the federal Small Business Administration (SBA). (We discuss the SBA funding in more detail in another post.)

Amount of Funding California Will Receive From the Emergency and Major Disaster Declarations Is Uncertain. At this time, it is unclear how much federal funding will ultimately be provided to California for COVID-19-related purposes as a result of the emergency and major disaster declarations. As discussed below, this is due to a couple of reasons.

First, it is unclear how much funding in total will be made available to states for COVID-19-related reimbursements. Emergency and major disaster declarations are funded from the Disaster Relief Fund (DRF). Currently, the DRF has a total of about $87 billion in funding. This includes $45 billion specifically for COVID-19 related costs appropriated to the DRF by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act (H.R. 748), which was signed into law on March 27, 2020. (We note that the CARES Act also provides state and local governments with other sources of funding for COVID-19 related activities. We plan to describe these sources of funding in greater detail in future posts.)

Second, of the amount made available to states for COVID-19-related reimbursements, it is unclear how much will ultimately be provided to California specifically. This is because California is in the early stages of its response to COVID-19 and the full amount of potentially eligible costs the state will incur is uncertain. Moreover, depending on the amount of eligible costs submitted by states for reimbursement, the federal government may need to further increase the appropriation to DRF if it is to ensure that all affected states receive reimbursement for all eligible costs, as it did with the passage of the CARES Act.

Additional Types of Assistance Could Be Authorized in the Future as a Result of Major Disaster Declaration. As discussed above, in authorizing the major disaster declaration for California, the federal government made the state eligible for funding for crisis counseling. However, we note that the federal government can subsequently amend major disaster declarations to expand the categories of assistance to states. If the federal government amends the major disaster declaration for California, some of the additional activities that could be eligible for federal funding include assistance to individuals and households (such as for housing, food, and unemployment related to an emergency), as well as work that helps prevent future disasters.

Information on Federal Funding Availability Is Changing Rapidly. At this point, California and federal officials are reacting to a quickly-developing public health emergency. As a result, information on the availability of federal funding—including funding related to the federal emergency and major disaster declarations—is changing rapidly. We plan to update this post as additional information becomes available.