3D render of the FEMA acronym.

How Do Cities Get Reimbursed by FEMA?

When there is a disaster, cities often request federal aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). This aid generally comes in the form of money, but FEMA also provides training, guidance, and other resources for local governments, non-profits, and even companies and individuals. Local jurisdictions can then use these funds to assist companies and individuals affected by a disaster.

So, how do cities and other jurisdictions actually get FEMA assistance?

An emergency worker cutting fallen trees. The worker is framed through a window.

A Disaster is Declared

First of all, for FEMA assistance to be available, an official disaster has to be declared. The Stafford Act allows the Governor of a state to request that the President declare a disaster. Requests can also be made by the Mayor of the District of Columbia and the governments of U.S. territories. The Sandy Recovery Improvement Act extended this right to federally recognized tribal governments.

The process involves requesting a Preliminary Damage Assessment (PDA), which is designed to assess the extent of the disaster, its impact, and what kind of federal aid might be needed. This information is then sent to the President. (In some cases, for more severe disasters, the governor might not wait for the PDA. This allows the President to declare either an emergency (which authorizes federal funds and can be done before an anticipated disaster, which most often happens with hurricanes) or a major disaster. The President can deny the request, which can then be appealed once.

Once a disaster or emergency has been declared, FEMA assistance will start the process of assisting.

What FEMA Funding is Available to Cities and Counties?

Federal aid that is directly made to cities and counties is intended to cover the costs of things such as restoring infrastructure and debris removal. There are some FEMA programs to support local governments.

Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities

The BRIC program exists outside the normal disaster declaration. Instead, communities can apply for funding in a specific fiscal year that is intended to be used for hazard mitigation. This includes things like funding to get older buildings up to code, flood control, wildfire mitigation, etc. Applications can include sub applicants, which can be individual homeowners.

However, all the FEMA assistance must be associated with a hazard mitigation plan. Hazard mitigation plans have to be approved. So, for example, a homeowner might apply to their county for funding to improve the firebreak around their home and have a plan to do so, and this might be included in a BRIC request to subsidize several homeowners. But they have to have a plan, which may require getting a site survey.

Emergency Rent and Utilities Assistance Program

Jurisdictions can also request funding to support the Emergency Rental Assistance Program. This was created specifically to help renters survive the COVID-19 pandemic, and is intended to be temporary, but ERAP-like programs may be created in the future. Cities and counties can ask for extra FEMA assistance to help them afford the federal aid given to renters.

As ERAP is intended to deal with COVID-related issues, it is available in all states and is generally administered by the state, but FEMA is reimbursing funds.

FEMA Public Assistance Program

Through the Public Assistance Program, FEMA provides supplemental grants to local governments and nonprofits. Generally, grants are available for debris removal, emergency protective measures (such as flood fighting, providing meals and medical care to evacuees, etc) and to pay for damage caused during emergency work. This allows governments to recover from disasters that exceed their typical budgets faster.

Jurisdictions apply for federal aid to cover various costs, including labor and equipment, then administer the programs to help people out during and after an emergency. FEMA assistance is only available after a disaster or emergency has been declared.

Individuals can then request assistance through these programs. For example, if your yard is full of debris, your county may have a FEMA-funded program to come around and remove it for you or to reimburse you for the cost of removal.

For the most part, the program is done through cost sharing. That is to say, FEMA matches funds already being spent by the jurisdiction. However, direct assistance is sometimes available. FEMA Public Assistance will not cover loss of revenue, loss of service life, or increased operating costs.

406 Mitigation Funding Program

The 406 program is designed to fund mitigation projects done concurrently with disaster recovery. For example, elevating heat pumps to prevent damage in a future flood.

Proposed measures are assessed to ensure that they are cost-effective, will reduce the impact of future similar incidents, are technically feasible, and are compliant with any environmental and historic preservation regulations. Cost-effective measures are specifically listed by FEMA. Also, the cost must not exceed that of the repair cost.

Often, the best time to do mitigation is during recovery; and certainly, it’s the best time to realize what mitigation measures are needed based on what happened during the disaster. This goes whether or not you can get federal aid. Post-disaster inspection should always include a discussion of future mitigation possibilities.

Fire Management Assistance Grants

The FMAG program provides a 75% cost share for the mitigation and control of wildland fires. These grants can be used to cover extra employees, maintenance of firefighting equipment, expenditure of supplies, food for firefighters, etc. They are most often used to support the mobilization and repositioning of fire fighting resources.

The point is to support fire control activities before a small fire becomes a large disaster. The fire has to be a threat to lives, improved property, critical watersheds, or have the potential for economic impact. The state also has to demonstrate that the fire exceeds a specific cost threshold. Approval can happen in a matter of hours.

FEMA assistance exists to help support disaster mitigation and recovery. While these sources of funding must be requested by governments and nonprofits, many of the benefits go to individuals and companies. If your area is being impacted by a disaster, it’s worth looking to see what FEMA-funded programs might exist that could help you recover.