FEDERAL LEGISLATION FOR DISASTER RELIEF
As Houston and other regions of the United States begin the long road to recovery from Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria while other storms still churn in the Atlantic, many will be following the process used by the federal government to provide assistance to those affected. This includes existing law and regulations along with recent and anticipated legislation and policy considerations applied to the current situation.
The “Stafford Act” refers to the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, which provides the basis for federal disaster assistance. Enacted in 1988, it is an amendment of the federal government’s 1974 Disaster Relief Act and sets out the mechanism whereby the president, upon petition by a state’s governor, can declare an emergency or disaster and thereby trigger financial and other assistance.
Note it is the Stafford Act that Texas Senators Cornyn and Cruz together with Senators Blunt and Lankford seek to amend so as to make religious non-profit organizations eligible for disaster assistance. During Hurricane Harvey, houses of worship were at the forefront of providing food, shelter and other comfort during the crisis. However, as the Stafford Act is currently written, churches are not eligible for disaster relief in the way of grants for repair, reconstruction or replacement of facilities. Four churches filed suit to be afforded assistance the same as non-profit organizations that are not faith-based, thus bringing the issue into the news. The Senators are attempting to resolve the matter through legislation and have introduced the Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act for this purpose.
As is often the case, the main vehicle for delivering government assistance is in the form of money or money used to secure other forms of aid. The federal government uses the Disaster Relief Fund as managed by FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) to provide the assistance authorized by the Stafford Act. Such aid includes a) individual assistance such as disaster housing for displaced persons, stop-gap help in event there is no insurance coverage or loss of employment and crisis counseling; b) public assistance to help communities remove debris and repair or replace public structures including buildings, roads, bridges and public utilities; and c) hazard mitigation so as to prevent or lessen the effects of a future disaster.
While the Disaster Relief Fund is funded in part through regular budget appropriation, by and large Congress, when faced with a specific disaster or emergency event, authorizes additional funding in response to the incident taking into account the specific nature and magnitude of the need.
On September 8, 2017, President Trump signed into law the “Continuing Appropriations Act, 2018 and Supplemental Appropriations for Disaster Relief Requirements Act, 2017” which provided an initial $15 billion for hurricane relief (half of which will go to the DRF and half to HUD-managed Community Development Block Grants for rebuilding). The law also provided, among other things, for the temporary suspension of the statutory debt limit through December 8, 2017 and for the continued funding of the federal government’s operation until that date. While controversial in that it precluded further negotiation between the Republican and Democrat members of Congress of other issues, it provided for preliminary and prompt funding in the wake of hurricanes disaster in Texas, Florida, the Caribbean and elsewhere. This was unlike the delayed appropriation for Hurricane Sandy in 2012 when additional expenditures viewed as non-essentials had been tacked on to the bill and resulted in delay for relief.
More funding will be needed and is expected through future appropriation bills. Other kinds of help are also being considered. Texas Congressman Kevin Brady is proposing legislation which would allow disaster victims to access their 401(k) savings without payment of penalty. Allowing higher deductions for casualty losses, write-offs for expenses related to rebuilding and incentives to encourage donations to relief organizations are also being considered. Some of these initiatives may be incorporated into upcoming tax reform.
Despite the catastrophic nature of the events resulting in the need for aid, it is anticipated that Congress will continue to struggle along party and philosophical lines to agree as to what and how much to do. Residents of Houston, Tampa, San Juan and many other communities will be watching Washington even more closely in the weeks and months to come as things could not have become any more personal and important for their lives, the lives of their neighbors and the prospects for their future.
Gail Schubot, CFRW Legislative Chair
September 25, 2017