Hurricane Matthew Presents Potential Recovery Headaches

Hurricane Matthew was identified as a named tropical storm on September 28, 2016, and became a Category1 Hurricane on September 29, 2016. Matthew then grew in strength and blasted its way through the Caribbean, and along the United States’ Eastern seaboard impacting Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina. This single hurricane prompted two Emergency Declarations (EM-337 & EM-3380) by President Obama and three Major Disaster Declarations (DR-4284, DR-4283, & DR-4285). [1]

What is the Difference Between an “Emergency” and a “Major Disaster” Declaration?

Essentially, the major difference is the type of aid states can receive from the Federal Government before, during, or following the strike of a hazard. Emergency declarations can be declared before the actual occurrence of a disaster, if the situation “threatens to occur in a state”; while Major Disaster Declarations usually turn on the amount of damage actually caused by the hazard. [2] Emergency declarations are generally limited to only support that lessens any potential impacts of a disaster; while Major Disaster declarations focus on long-term recovery of a disaster-stricken area. [3] Emergency Declarations allow limited Individual Assistance Programs and only “Emergency Work” under the Public Assistance Programs. A Major Disaster Declaration Generally makes all Individual and Public Assistance Programs available to the states. [4]

Why is This a Headache? Isn’t Getting a Major Disaster Declaration a Good Thing?

Yes and no. Though getting additional aid to Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina is a good thing, the support comes with strings attached and some hidden consequences.

Impact on Public and Private Non-Profit Organizations

First, once an agency or private non-profit organization receives federal disaster recovery assistance, they are now subject to audits, federal procurement, historical preservation, and environmental regulations. There have actually been situations where FEMA has taken back (“de-obligated”) money after an audit by the Department of Homeland Security’s office, which can be in the millions. [5] The solution is by making sure the agency or non-profit retain experienced disaster management legal counsel to examine the requirements and advise the organization through every step of the process. Though there is a way to appeal a FEMA denial or de-obligation, it’s usually best to get things done right, up-front.

Impact on Individuals and Insurance Companies

Second, the lawsuits can be endless. Following almost every disaster, there are some homeowners that decide to sue their insurance company because they feel that they didn’t get enough to fully recover. Some homeowners can be under-insured or not even have the right policy leading up to a storm (such as flood insurance coverage). This has become such an issue, that the Texas Senate Committee on Business & Commerce is considering recommending curbs on “frivolous litigation” when the next legislative session convenes in January 2017. One lawyer has testified before the Senate Committee that many of the storm damage lawsuits following Hurricane Ike sought an average of $65,000 each; however, most eventually settled for 70-80% less. Even at trial, about half of the cases have found that the insurance company owed nothing. [6]

So what does this mean? It means that Insurance Companies also need to ensure they have experienced disaster management legal counsel to help quickly and efficiently sort through the facts of each case and save precious time and money to be spent on those who truly need the money.


[1] Fed. Emergency Mgmt. Agency, Disaster Declarations, Fed. Emergency Mgmt. Agency (Oct. 11, 2016),

[2] Compare 44 CFR § 206.35(a) (2016) with 44 CFR § 206.36(a) (2016). See also 44 CFR § 206.37(c)(1)-(2) (2016).

[3] See generally Fed. Emergency Mgmt. Agency, The Disaster Declaration Process, Fed. Emergency Mgmt. Agency (Oct. 11, 2016),

[4] Id.

[5] William S. Gribble, County Mismanagement Leads to Staggering FEMA Debt, Emergency Management (Sept. 29, 2016),

[6] Dave Fehling, Insurance Companies Say They’re Victims of Storm-Chasing Lawyers, Houston Public Media (Oct. 10, 2016),