Natural Disasters | Resource Planning


Natural Disasters Taking a Toll on States

Hurricane graphic image.Natural disasters, which occur across all parts of the United States, result in severe damage to natural and built environments, have long-term economic impacts and often lead to loss of life. In 2017, more than 25 million Americans were affected by natural disasters, most notably hurricanes in the southeast, and wildfires in the west. It was also the most expensive year on record for natural disasters, with $306.2 billion in damage and 362 deaths.

Over the past decade, the cost of recovering from disasters has ballooned. The average number of billion-dollar disasters doubled between 1980 and 2016. Federal, state and local governments all have a vested interest in reducing the costs and impacts of disasters and are taking a hard look at mitigation strategies that will reduce the environmental and fiscal impacts of disasters and help communities recover faster.

The uptick in natural disasters has stressed even the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA’s) capacity to respond. In March of 2018, FEMA released its 2018-2022 Strategic Plan, which has three core principles: Build a culture of preparedness, ready the nation for catastrophic disasters, and reduce the complexity of FEMA. In terms of mitigation, states should expect a push from FEMA in the coming years to communicate their resilience plans, to increase state-to-state mutual aid and to develop comprehensive plans, programs and operation centers for disaster mitigation. 

FEMA defines “major disasters” as natural events for which the President determines that federal assistance is needed. 

US map showing natural disasters.

Federal Legislation

Spring 2019 Disaster Aid Package

In June, Congress passed a long-awaited $19 billion supplemental disaster aid package for states most affected by 2017, 2018 and 2019 disasters. The supplemental does not include homeland security funds but does include language directing FEMA to consider stricter revisions to costs the agency should consider when determining whether to rebuild storm-impacted facilities. Key overall and disaster mitigation sections include:

  • $3.26 billion to the Army Corps of Engineers, including:
    • $1 billion in a Flood Control and Coastal Emergencies account for expenses to prepare for floods, hurricanes and other natural disasters, as well as support for certain emergency response operations.
    • Nearly $800 million to investigate and build high-priority flood and storm damage reduction projects.
  • $3 billion for crop losses via block grants to states and territories.
  • $2.4 billion in Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds, featuring several restrictions and requirements, in part requiring any remaining funds to be used for mitigation activities.
  • $1.65 billion for federal aid for highways emergency relief.
  • $50 million to the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to improve forecasting.
  • $50 million for Title IX funds for public-private partnerships to support coastal resiliency.

Fall 2018 Disaster Recovery Reform Act

In October 2018, Congress passed HR 302, the Disaster Recovery Reform Act (DRRA). Considered the most comprehensive disaster reform legislation since Hurricane Katrina, the law increases the federal investment in pre-disaster mitigation, increases reimbursement caps for state and local governments on a range of disaster costs, and allows state and local governments to administer housing assistance grants. Importantly, Section 1239 of the law directs the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) to revise and update the factors considered when evaluating a governor’s request for a major disaster declaration, including the way FEMA estimates the cost of major disaster assistance and the capacity of a jurisdiction to respond to disasters.  

NCSL drafted and advocated for language in the final law that specifically requires consultation with state and local governments: “In determining the capacity of a jurisdiction to respond to disasters, and prior to the issuance of such a rule, the Administrator shall engage in meaningful consultation with relevant representatives of State, regional, local, and Indian tribal government stakeholders.”

The inclusion of this language ensures that FEMA considers this important perspective before making changes to the way disaster assistance is calculated, based on such capacity. This language reflects NCSL’s current Homeland Security and Emergency Management policy, which in part promotes consultation as well as mitigation-focused policy. NCSL issued a letter to the full U.S. Senate in July 2018 highlighting certain components of the legislation and advocating for its passage.

Additional sections of note within the law:

  • Allow states to use federal disaster assistance to directly administer temporary and permanent housing assistance for disaster victims. This ensures such funding is managed by state officials who are much closer to disaster-affected communities and more familiar with their state’s unique risk profile, infrastructure and grant recipients (Section 1211).
  • Amend the Stafford Act to establish increased and fixed reimbursement rates to state and local governments for direct and indirect administrative costs associated with disaster recovery efforts. This includes no more than 15% for hazard mitigation and 12% for essential assistance, repair, restoration and replacement, debris removal and transportation assistance (Section 1215).
  • Reauthorize federal funding for Emergency Management Planning Grants (EMPG) and the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC) (Section 1217).
  • Allow the FEMA administrator to develop incentives and penalties to encourage state and local governments to expedite the timely closeout of recovery-related expenditures and activities (Section 1221).
  • Require the FEMA administrator to develop a plan to streamline information collection processes for grant applications and make the process less burdensome and time-consuming (Section 1223).
  • Direct FEMA to increase consideration of severe local impact when evaluating whether to recommend a major disaster declaration (Section 1232).
  • Establish the National Public Infrastructure Pre-Disaster Mitigation Assistance Program, which will commit certain funding from the Disaster Relief Fund to pre-disaster mitigation efforts. It allocates 6% of the combined obligations estimated following a major disaster (unemployment assistance, assistance to low-income migrant and seasonal farmworkers, and crisis counseling assistance and training) to mitigation assistance (Section 1234). Mitigation funding is also provided for wildfire prevention (Section 1204).
  • Require FEMA to coordinate emergency response plans with state, tribal and local governments (Section 1236).

If you have any further questions on the Disaster Recovery Reform Act, please contact Lucia Bragg or 202-624-3576. 

State Legislation

When localities lack the resources to respond to natural disasters, states provide relief. As such, states have an interest in mitigating the impact of disasters within their borders. FEMA’s 2018-2022 Strategic Plan suggests that disaster mitigation and response should be “federally supported, state managed, and locally executed.” FEMA provides several grants to incentivize states to mitigate natural disasters.

According to a recently published study by the National Institute of Building Sciences, every dollar spent on mitigation saves six dollars on future disaster losses. At least 19 states have pre-disaster mitigation policies, which include strong building codes, research on disaster risk and intergovernmental/interagency collaboration.

Natural Disaster Mitigation Statutes


Statute Number



Cal. [gov] Code §8550 (West)

Establishes the Office of Emergency Services to coordinate natural disaster response between the state, state agencies, and private organizations


Cal. [pub. util] Code §8387 (West)

Requires that publicly owned electric utility and electric cooperative minimize the risk of wildfires caused by construction, maintenance, and operation of electrical lines and equipment


Del. Code Ann. tit. 20 §3105

Establishes the Delaware Emergency Management Agency charged with planning for and responding to natural disasters


Fla. Stat. Ann. §163.3178 (West)

Establishes legislative intent to protect coastal resources from developments that will put the areas at furthered risk in the event of a natural disaster


Fla. Stat. Ann. §215.559 (West)

Requires $10 million a year from the Florida Hurricane Catastrophe Fund to be used for pre-disaster mitigation


Fla. Stat. Ann. §215.55952 (West)

Requires the Chief Financial Officer to produce an economic analysis of 1-in-100-year hurricanes


Fla. Stat. Ann. §252.32 (West)

Establishes the Division of Emergency Management, charged with coordinating disaster relief efforts


Fla. Stat. Ann. §553.72 (West)

Establishes a building code to mitigate the damage of future disasters


Fla. Stat. Ann. §553.841 (West)

Establishes a program to ensure that construction complies with building codes that protect against natural disasters


Fla. Stat. Ann. §1004.647 (West)

Creates a center at Florida State University to research catastrophic storm loss


Hawaii Rev. Stat. §127A-1

Establishes legislative intent to provide for emergency management through county-level organizations and provide public education about natural disaster safety protocol


Hawaii Rev. Stat. §127A-3

Establishes the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency


Iowa Code Ann. §18B.2

Provides guidelines for municipalities’ natural disaster preparation



Ky. Rev. Stat. §39A.050

Requires the Division of Emergency Management to develop an integrative plan for natural disaster response


La. Rev. Stat. Ann. §29:722

Establishes the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness charged with planning for and responding to disasters


Md. [state finance and procurement] Code. §7-324

Requires that the Catastrophic Event Account respond to natural disasters


Miss. Code Ann. §33-15-2

Establishes legislative intent to prepare for and mitigate the risk of natural disasters


Miss. Code Ann. §33-15-14

Requires the Agency of Military Affairs to create a plan for natural disasters that includes evacuation, shelter, and post-disaster protocol

New Hampshire

N.H. Rev. Stat. §21-P:34

Establishes a state division of emergency services, communications, and management that coordinates mutual aid across political subdivisions of the state

New York

N.Y. [executive] Law §22 (McKinney)

Mandates that the Disaster Preparedness Commission create a plan for natural disaster response

North Carolina

N.C. Gen. Stat. §166A-19.12

Establishes the Division of Emergency Management, charged with preparing for and responding to natural disasters


Ohio Rev. Code Ann. §3750.15

Establishes a fund for disaster preparation grants and for disaster response


Okla. Stat. Ann. tit. 63 §683.2

Establishes the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management to respond to emergencies


Okla. Stat. Ann. tit. 63 §690.1

Establishes the Oklahoma Flood Hazard Mitigation Program, which encourages pre-disaster mitigation of flood risk


Or. Rev. Stat. §401.532

Establishes a pre-disaster mitigation fund to aid in natural disaster preparation on the local and state level


Tenn. Code Ann. §58-2-103

Establishes the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA) charged with coordinating disaster response


Va. Code §2.2-222.1

Requires the Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security to identify which state agencies will respond to natural disasters


Va. Code §2.2-222.3

Establishes that the primary focus of the Secure and Resilient Commonwealth Panel is natural disaster response and mitigation


Wis. Stat. Ann. §323.13

Requires the adjutant general to the governor to develop a state plan of emergency management


Wis. Stat. Ann. §323.61

Establishes grants to incentivize emergency planning


Wyo. Stat. §35-9-153 (1977)

Establishes a state emergency response commission with members from a wide array of industries and political subdivisions


Case Study—Florida

Hurricane in a city.As a result of its many recent disasters, Florida has taken the lead in developing comprehensive natural disaster legislation. In September 2017, Hurricane Irma made landfall in Florida, killing an estimated 84 people and causing the evacuation of 6.5 million. Strong building codes, a well-developed response agency, insurance, and access to grants for individuals and businesses allowed Florida to more effectively respond to and recover from the most intense hurricane to strike the continental United States since Hurricane Katrina in 2005. 

Nine years after Hurricane Andrew, which destroyed over 63,500 homes and cost $27.3 billion in damages in 1992, the Florida Legislature enacted Fla. Stat. Ann. §553.72 (West) in 2001 to require compliance with strict building codes. In 2014, the legislature enacted Fla. Stat. Ann. §553.841 (West), which requires the Department of Business and Professional Legislation to provide ongoing education about hurricane mitigation to those required to comply with the Florida Building Code. Florida’s building codes are updated every three years, and in the past, have been modeled after the International Code Council’s (ICC) building codes. As of last year, the Florida Building Commission will instead model new building codes on their existing codes.

Structures built in accordance with the stronger building codes were put to the test in 2004 when Hurricane Charley struck Florida. According to a study performed by the Institute for Business and Home Safety (IBHS) later that year, there was a 60 percent reduction in damage claims for homes built after the adoption of the building codes. Eighty percent of the homes hit with Hurricane Irma’s strongest winds in 2017 were built utilizing the stronger codes. It is likely that the codes mitigated much of the Hurricane Irma’s damage, but no thorough analysis has yet been performed.

Recognizing the importance of intergovernmental/interagency collaboration, Fla. Stat. Ann. §252.32 (West) established the Division of Emergency Management in 2001 to coordinate relief efforts among FEMA, state agencies, private organizations and volunteers.  The Division of Emergency Management also maintains a State Enhanced Hazard Mitigation Plan, which helps local communities mitigate disasters and administers three federal and one state-specific mitigation grant program.

Florida continues to focus on mitigation strategies as the Division of Emergency Management, the Florida House of Representatives Select Committee on Hurricane Response and Preparedness and the Florida Catastrophic Storm Risk Management Center (established as part of Florida State University in 2007 by Fla. Stat. Ann. §1004.647 (West)) conduct research and make recommendations to the Florida Legislature. Since Hurricane Irma, the Division has published the Enhanced State Hazard Mitigation Plan and the House committee has made 78 recommendations for new or amended disaster legislation. Only one piece of legislation has been enacted thus far. Notable recommendations include improving risk assessments, integrating mitigation practices, increasing awareness of existing programs, encouraging consideration of natural resource conservation in mitigation efforts and providing disaster mitigation training for those involved in construction.


Whether it is a slow-moving storm that overwhelms a city’s storm-water management system, or a tornado that quickly ravages everything in its path, the increasing frequency and severity of natural disasters is taking a toll on states and their budgets. State legislatures can save money and better prepare their states for natural disasters by prioritizing disaster mitigation. North Carolina for example, has spent more than $21 million and plans to spend another $40 million on LIDAR Mapping, which uses drones to collect data and help identify at-risk areas. To effectively mitigate disasters, states should enhance research, encourage thorough collaboration and adopt known mitigation approaches like the establishment and enforcement of robust building codes. 

Additional Resources

NCSL Resources

FEMA Initiatives and Programs

Other Federal Initiatives and Funds