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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Potential Stafford Act Declarations for the Gulf Coast Oil Spill: Issues for Congress

Francis X. McCarthy
Analyst in Emergency Management Policy

The Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, P.L. 93-288, presents several options, and could provide a number of programs, to address the Gulf Coast oil spill. That spill is currently being addressed by a law fashioned for that purpose, the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, P.L. 101-380. 

An emergency declaration under the Stafford Act would appear a potential approach to the current situation since it is intended to lessen the impact of an imminent disaster. A major disaster declaration would open up more Stafford Act programs that might be especially appropriate for the needs generated by the spill. FEMA assistance can be rapid and flexible, but it also would need to be carefully delineated to avoid duplication of benefits and general confusion when working in the milieu of P.L. 101-380. Under that law, which provides both authorities and a fund for compensation, the incident is currently being addressed and the federal response coordinated. 

During the previous large spill, the Exxon Valdez in 1989, the President turned down the governor of Alaska's two requests for an emergency declaration. The rationale for the turndowns was that a declaration by the President would hinder the government's litigation against Exxon that promised substantial compensation for the incident. 

Using a Stafford Act declaration, either an emergency or a major disaster declaration, for Gulf Coast states that are now approaching the fifth anniversary of the Hurricane Katrina landfall would present not only a reminder of difficult, lingering issues from that disaster in 2005 but also an opportunity for a second chance at long-term recovery assistance. Managing public expectations is difficult even in the smallest disaster event. Working with a region that is aware of the potential aid under Stafford and mistrustful of its delivery is a hard challenge. Since FEMA would be attempting to work in coordination with another set of authorities being carried out by other agencies and departments, the complexity would only increase. 

Although FEMA has new leadership, it has compiled a mixed record over the last few years, from an accelerated response to Hurricanes Gustav and Ike to an arbitration process on large projects from the Katrina recovery, that has called into question the judgment and accuracy of its processes. Also, any additional work would add to the imbalance in the largely depleted Disaster Relief Fund (DRF). The DRF is currently awaiting congressional action on the President's request for $5.1 billion in supplemental funds, which was made months before the oil spill occurred. 

Disasters can be complex events, raising thorny issues that resist the simplest solutions. When several federal authorities are at work, those issues could multiply as questions of compensation for individuals and communities are considered. It could be argued that the absence of increased federal involvement could serve to simplify the response. At least one area, long-term recovery, is not directly addressed in P.L. 101-380. Some might argue it is also an area that the federal government did not address in the aftermath of Katrina. In response to congressional direction, FEMA has published a draft National Disaster Recovery Framework (NDRF). Perhaps amidst the current complications of overlapping authorities and funds, implementing that framework could provide a viable and limited option for the use of Stafford Act authorities.

Date of Report: June 23, 2010
Number of Pages: 14
Order Number: R41234
Price: $29.95

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