The NCSL Blog


By Doug Farquhar

Hurricane Harvey struck Texas over the weekend, and is headed to Louisiana leaving thousands without power, food and, in many cases, shelter.

Water from Addicks Reservoir flows into neighborhoods as floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey rise Tuesday. David J. Phillip / Associated Press This storm comes on top of earlier disasters like wildfires, floods and earthquakes that have stressed federal resources to the limit. FEMA’s disaster relief fund is down to $3.3. billion. Any additional funding will require an appropriation from Congress.

States have a financial responsibility as well when a natural disaster is declared. FEMA's Public Assistance grant program provides federal assistance to government organizations and certain private nonprofit organizations, but requires the state to pay a 25 percent cost share. For Harvey, this could mean nearly $100 million.

“Emergency management’s a partnership. It’s all based on a community’s capacity to handle an event,” FEMA Administrator Brock Long told the Washington Post. “All disasters begin and end at the local level.” As Long has described it, FEMA’s job is to arrive when the local and state agencies are overwhelmed, which is what is happening in Texas.

But state resources are stretched as well. In 2016 hurricanes hit Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. Wildfires raged in Georgia, North and South Carolina, and Tennessee.Flooding swamped Texas, Louisiana, Virginia, Iowa and Wisconsin. States are struggling to keep ahead.

In 2017 state legislatures enacted several bills to respond to natural disasters. For several years, Congress has voiced an interest in reducing expenditures on natural disasters, as have states. Looking more broadly, there are efforts to do more before a disaster strikes to lessen the physical damage and lower the financial risks.

To that end, states are requiring changes to forest management, encouraging interagency working groups and amending building codes to ensure their state is more prepared for a natural disaster.

During disasters, states may request regulatory assistance, or a waiver, to help expedite recovery efforts. Some states have declared a state of emergency in response to Hurricane Harvey, allowing for temporary exemptions of certain regulations, such as those for fuel caused by severe power outages and the unanticipated shutdown of fuel refineries.

If your state is considering waivers to support the response, please visit the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Waiver Library to review options.

To learn more about state responses to natural disasters, visit the NCSL Natural Disasters page.

Doug Farquhar is the program director for NCSL's the Environmental Health Program.

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.