What is a Disaster Declaration?

After a disaster strikes, the term “disaster declaration” is often on the news by reporters and public officials. But what is a disaster declaration and what does it do?

What is a Disaster Declaration?

A Disaster Declaration is a formal statement by the jurisdiction’s chief public official (i.e. Mayor, County Judge, or Governor) that a disaster or emergency situation exceeds their response capabilities. [1] Though commonly addressed after a disaster, a declaration may be made if a disaster is “imminent.” [2] A disaster declaration is not wide sweeping though. Each level of government (county, state, and federal) will tailor their disaster declaration to include only the area(s) impacted by the disaster. [3] Because Emergency Management in the United States takes a “bottom-up” approach to response, cities will proclaim a disaster declaration, followed by a county, then state, then the federal government. [4] Once a disaster declaration is issued, it is promptly recorded into public record and disseminated to the general public. [5]

What Kinds of Disaster Declarations Are There?

The federal government has two general types of disaster declarations. States generally follow a similar scheme depending on statute. [6] The President has the ultimate authority to approve or deny a governor’s request for assistance. [7]

Major Disaster Declarations

A Major Disaster Declaration is generally requested when a disaster exceeds the response capabilities of the state and local governments, and long term recovery assistance is needed. [8] Major Disaster Declarations are intended for only the most severe circumstances where the most help is needed to get the community as close as possible to a pre-disaster state. Incidentally, the majority of disaster response and recovery programs are at the disposal of the state governor following a Major Disaster Declaration.

Emergency Declarations

An Emergency Declaration is generally requested when the state and local governments need help responding to an emergency or disaster; however, no long term recovery assistance is needed. [9] With this, generally only disaster response programs are at the disposal of the state governor following an Emergency Declaration. The President may downgrade a Governor’s Major Disaster Declaration request to an Emergency Declaration if they believe the former is not warranted. [10]

What Does a Disaster Declaration Do?

Simply put, a disaster declaration allows public officials to exercise emergency powers to preserve life, property, and public health following a disaster. [11] Some of these powers include:

  • Ordering an evacuation of a disaster threatened or stricken area [12];
  • Control access to an area following a disaster [13];
  • Hold individuals liable for the cost of rescue efforts if they ignore mandatory evacuations [10];
  • Temporarily suspend certain regulations and deadlines [14];
  • Temporarily disarm individuals during the state of disaster [15]; and
  • Request federal financial assistance for recovery projects in the disaster stricken area [16].

Most often, disaster declarations are sought so federal financial assistance can be obtained for both individuals and public entities in a disaster stricken area. [17]


[1] See 42 U.S.C. § 5170(a) (2016); Tex. Gov’t Code Ann. §§ 418.014, 418.108 (West 2016); 44 C.F.R. 42 § 206.35(b)(1) (2016); 37 Tex. Admin. Code § 7.21 (2016).

[2] 44 C.F.R. 42 § 206.35(b)(1) (2016); 37 Tex. Admin. Code § 7.21 (2016).

[3] 42 U.S.C. § 5191(a) (2016), Tex. Gov’t Code Ann. § 418.014(d)(2) (West 2016).

[4] See 42 USCA § 5121(b) (“it is the intent of Congress…to provide an orderly and continuing means of assistance…to State and local governments in carrying out their responsibility to alleviate the suffering and damages which result from [ ] disasters….”); 37 Tex. Admin. Code § 7.26 (2016) (“All local disaster operations will be directed by officials of the local government.”).

[5] Tex. Gov’t Code Ann. §§ 418.014(e), 418.108(c) (West 2016).

[6] Texas Gov’t Code Ann. § 418.025(a) (West 2016).

[7] 42 U.S.C. § 5170(a) (2016); 44 C.F.R. 206.38 (2016).

[8] 44 C.F.R. § 206.36(b) (2016).

[9] 44 C.F.R. § 206.35(b) (2016).

[10] 44 C.F.R. § 206.38(b) (2016).

[11] Tex. Gov’t Code Ann. § 418.108(d) (West 2016). See Authority of County Officials to Act in an Emergency, and Related Questions, Op. Tex. Att’y Gen. MW-140 (1980).

[12] Texas Gov’t Code Ann. §§ 418.018(a), 418.108(f), 418.185(b)-(c) (West 2016).

[13] Texas Gov’t Code Ann. §§ 418.018(c), 418.108(g) (West 2016).

[14] Texas Gov’t Code Ann. §§ 418.016(a), (e) (West 2016).

[15] Texas Gov’t Code Ann. §§ 418.184(a)-(b) (West 2016).

[16] Texas Gov’t Code Ann. § 418.021(a) (West 2016).

[17] John T. Gasper, The Politics of Denying Aid: An Analysis of Disaster Declaration Turndowns, 22 J. of Pub. Mgmt & Soc. Pol. 2, 6 (Sept. 2015), http://digitalscholarship.tsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1027&context=jpmsp (last accessed on Jul 19. 2016).