Stafford Act emergency declaration frees up $42 billion in federal disaster relief


RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – In declaring the novel coronavirus pandemic a national emergency, President Donald Trump invoked the Stafford Act on Friday.

But what does that mean?

Only the president has the power to make such a declaration, and Senate Democrats urged him to do so in a letter earlier this week.

It gives the Federal Emergency Management Agency the power to aid state and local governments and coordinate the nation’s response to catastrophes – usually natural disasters, but also pandemics.

FEMA controls the $42.6 billion Disaster Relief Fund, which has been set aside by Congress for disaster relief. Once freed, that money could be used to for expenses such as workers, medical tests and supplies and vaccinations, among other expenses.

According to the Democrats’ letter, the declaration allows FEMA to provide “emergency protective measures” while shouldering three-fourths of the costs. The states would be responsible for the other 25 percent.

The act, passed in 1988, is an amended version of the Disaster Relief Act of 1974 and is named for late Sen. Robert Stafford, R-Vermont.

Trump has issued several disaster declarations during his presidential term, invoking the act during the California wildfires and for flooding in Oklahoma in 2019.

Emergency declarations for public health threats have been less frequent, with the West Nile Virus outbreak in 2000 prompting one from former President Bill Clinton.

This marked the latest in a series of emergency declarations by governmental bodies.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declared a public health emergency on Jan. 31 under the Public Health Service Act, a 1944 law that established the federal government’s quarantine authority, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

The Public Health Service – an agency that has since been folded into the DHHS – took responsibility for preventing the introduction, transmission and spread of communicable diseases from other countries into the U.S., according to the CDC.

And in North Carolina, Gov. Roy Cooper declared a state of emergency on Tuesday, a move that activated the state Emergency Operations Center and put into effect the state’s anti-price-gouging laws.

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