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How the Federal Government Can Help After a Natural Disaster

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In a Nutshell

The federal government provides short-term and long-term help for victims of natural disasters like wildfires, earthquakes, severe storms. Federal disaster relief agencies like FEMA provide food, shelter, water, money, and healthcare for those affected by a natural disaster. The IRS, U.S. Small Business Administration, and U.S. Department of Labor are lesser-known government agencies that help out with various aspects of disaster relief as well.

Written by Todd Carney, J.D. Harvard Law 2021.  
Updated November 22, 2021


When natural disasters strike, we rely on the federal government to help us. Wildfires, earthquakes, severe storms, and other situations often require an emergency response. If you haven’t been a recipient of this government aid, you’re not likely to be familiar with hazard mitigation programs, like the flood insurance program or hurricane assistance. However, as the coronavirus has shown, the federal government will provide other forms of assistance when people face certain emergencies.

This article takes you through the programs that the federal government has to assist you when facing different kinds of disasters.

How the Federal Government Responds to a Natural Disaster

The president provides a major disaster declaration after there’s an earthquake, flood, tornado, wildfire, or other serious disasters. The federal government, led by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), responds to disasters once a state, tribe, territory, or local government requests help. This response focuses on restoring, developing, and revitalizing the disaster area and the people that have been impacted by the disaster.

Federal Agencies That Offer Disaster Assistance Programs

While most people think of FEMA when they think of disaster recovery efforts, there are several other agencies that also respond to emergencies in the U.S. These government agencies have programs to help rebuild infrastructure, clean up wreckage, perform evacuations, provide medical care, give food, help local businesses, administer unemployment assistance, and develop tax relief related to the disaster.

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)

Congress created FEMA in 1979. Though you may be most familiar with its hurricane assistance programs, FEMA has initiatives to help those impacted by just about any natural catastrophe. This assistance often comes to disaster areas in the form of on-the-ground assistance to local governments within the communities. FEMA helps homeowners and others to find a place to stay following a disaster. FEMA also provides money to people who qualify for financial assistance.

Disaster Assistance Improvement Program

The Disaster Assistance Improvement Program overlaps with FEMA. This initiative provides more than 70 kinds of disaster relief through 17 federal agencies, one of which is FEMA. What separates this program from FEMA is that it provides customized, individual help for all disaster survivors. This kind of assistance can come in the form of:

  • Providing money for food

  • Getting someone put up in a hotel

  • Finding a person a new place to live

  • Reimbursing for loss of income

  • Assisting with medical or legal needs 

Additionally, this program can help people access grants and loans and helps with disaster preparedness.

U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA)

The SBA is not centered around major disasters. Overall, it works to provide Americans with assistance in starting and growing small businesses. But it does have a Disaster Loan Program. This program gives small business owners who’ve been hurt by natural disasters long-term loans with low-interest rates. The SBA uses a streamlined process to administer the loans and help small businesses quickly recover from a disaster.

U.S. Department of Labor

Like the SBA, the Department of Labor (DOL) is another government agency whose mission focuses on more than major disasters. But under the Disaster Unemployment Assistance Act, the DOL gives disaster recovery aid to anyone whose livelihood has been disrupted by a major disaster. DOL provides these victims with unemployment benefits.

Internal Revenue Service (IRS)

You likely know of the IRS, but you might not realize that they give federal tax assistance to anyone who qualifies for losses related to a natural disaster. This kind of help will typically come in the form of letting people claim a disaster-related loss and extending the period that people can file for taxes.

Nongovernmental Organizations Offering Disaster Assistance

While the federal government provides extensive aid in response to federal disasters, it’s not the only entity that helps people impacted by disasters. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are among the largest providers of assistance in the private sector to those in need after a natural catastrophe.

American Red Cross

One of the most well-known NGOs is the American Red Cross. The American Red Cross was founded back in 1881. This private nonprofit receives funding from individual donations, grants, and some fees. The American Red Cross has a comprehensive library of resources. Examples include disaster response and preparedness and emergency assistance. The American Red Cross also provides disaster relief by assisting people. They’ll notify an individual’s loved ones to let them know they’re safe. They also serve as a general resource for assisting people in recovering emotionally and financially after a disaster.

Other Organizations Offering Aid

There are many other organizations that provide disaster relief. One is All Hands Volunteer. This organization provides infrastructure support in response to natural disasters. They work to establish immediate recovery programs and help create structures that can hold up long term.

Another organization you might recognize is the Salvation Army. Similar to the Red Cross, this organization has extensive resources that allow it to respond to many disasters. The Salvation Army provides a range of technical assistance, including giving out food, helping house people temporarily, providing counseling, performing search and rescue, and providing medical aid.

The National Organization for Victim Assistance (NOVA) also responds when a disaster strikes. This group focuses on helping those who experience trauma in the wake of a disaster. NOVA’s officials have a robust background in being able to help all types of disaster victims.

One group that provides flood relief is Team Rubicon. This group organizes first responders and people with military backgrounds and medical experience. Team Rubicon works both in the U.S. and throughout the world to provide disaster response. Although it works in situations involving floods, it also assists in other types of natural disasters.

Similarly, UNICEF is an international organization that provides disaster relief in response to earthquakes. UNICEF has worked in many different parts of the world. It will provide immediate assistance to provide food, healthcare services, and mental health care. UNICEF also helps establish long-term resources. Similar to Team Rubicon, it doesn’t focus just on earthquakes. It also works with other disasters.

Let’s Summarize…

Though you’re probably familiar with how the federal government responds to some disasters like hurricanes, you might not know about all the programs the federal government has. These programs provide both immediate and long-term help. Programs through FEMA and other important agencies provide food, shelter, water, money, and healthcare when a disaster strikes. This assistance can be short term and/or long term. 

Aside from the federal government, there are also many NGOs that handle a variety of situations. If you find yourself the victim of a disaster, you should reach out to the organizations like the ones featured in this article.



Written By:

Todd Carney, J.D. Harvard Law 2021

LinkedIn

Todd Carney is a writer and graduate of Harvard Law School. While in law school, Todd worked in a clinic that helped pro-bono clients file for bankruptcy. Todd also studied several aspects of how the law impacts consumers. Todd has written over 40 articles for sites such as RealC... read more about Todd Carney, J.D. Harvard Law 2021

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