A Closer Look at FEMA Reimbursement for Civil Unrest Expenses

burning car after street riots and clashes

August 11th, 2015

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By CHHS Research Assistants Jules Szanton and Elizabeth Millford

Last month, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) rejected Maryland’s appeal for $19.4 million in expenses that city and state governments incurred during the civil unrest following the death of Freddie Gray in police custody.  Maryland’s aid application – and the application’s rejection by FEMA – offers a deeper look at when FEMA does and does not recognizes an event as a disaster.

Maryland sought federal reimbursement under the federal Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (Stafford Act).  The Stafford Act allows the federal government to declare a “major disaster” and compensate state governments for expenses that they incur in the event of a “natural catastrophe…or, regardless of cause, any fire, flood, or explosion.”

Maryland’s application and appeal argued that the civil unrest that the city experienced in April after Gray’s funeral should qualify as a disaster. The protests, looting, and violence created considerable costs: an initial estimate of $30.5 million in economic losses to businesses and families in addition to the $19.4 million requested by Hogan to cover operational expenses. As part of their claim for reimbursement, the state pointed to a handful of other occasions when FEMA acted under the Stafford Act to reimburse state and local governments for intentional, man-made damages, including the 1992 Los Angeles riots, the 1993 World Trade Center attack, and the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Historically, however, it is unusual for FEMA to use the Stafford Act to reimburse state and local governments for damage that is intentionally inflicted.  While the language of the Stafford Act includes fires, floods and explosions regardless of cause, of which Baltimore had “15 structural fires, and 140 vehicular fires,” during the rioting, most major disasters for which FEMA offers reimbursement are natural disasters.

The three examples of man-made damage cited in Maryland’s application had significantly larger impacts than Baltimore’s recent unrest. In Los Angeles, rioting lasted six days and caused 52 deaths, 2,5000 injuries and  $446 million in property damage. According to a New York Times article published six months after the riots, “Of $300 million for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or F.E.M.A., more than two-thirds ($218 million) is going to the state and county to help pay for National Guard, state police, debris removal and other immediate riot-control expenses.”

Civil unrest can occur multiple times a year, and can be caused by police-involved shootings, upset sports fans, or even a New Hampshire pumpkin festival.  Exactly one year ago this week, protests broke out over the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, causing similar unrest to Baltimore’s own. FEMA activated the local Regional Watch Center and developed regular reports on the activity that was taking place in case the need for federal aid arose, but no disaster declaration was sought.

According to FEMA, there are a number of guidelines that are used when determining whether a state is eligible for a disaster declaration under the Stafford Act. These guidelines include the type and amount of damage, impact on critical infrastructure, impact on public safety and governmental functions, and available insurance and assistance from other sources. However, these are merely guidelines; FEMA is given discretion in choosing when to provide aid, and every request is considered on a case-by-case basis. According to one congressional report, FEMA claims that, following an event, the regional office engages in a Preliminary Damage Assessment (PDA), after which FEMA uses the data to make a determination. But the PDA is not always the primary determining factor; local media, as well as political pressure, can often influence FEMA’s decision-making, particularly in the aftermath of large-scale disasters.

Overall, there is no exact formula to determine whether a state will receive federal aid; there are many factors that go into the decision, and many of them have varying levels of importance depending upon the specific nature of each individual disaster. A significant reason for the unclear process used when evaluating a request for aid could be that FEMA has historically kept a lot of its decision-making information private. Since 1999, following some congressional pressure, FEMA has gradually increased the transparency of their disaster declaration process.

With its refusal to reimburse Maryland for expenses associated with the April unrest, the federal government has offered a little more clarity to the murky question of what sort of disaster can qualify as a “major disaster” under the Stafford Act.  Major disasters don’t have to be natural disasters, but it seems that, in recent years, FEMA is willing to reimburse for damage caused by crime only in a handful of exceptional cases. Perhaps this is the result of a changing trend for FEMA. Presidential disaster declarations have been steadily rising since the passage of the Stafford Act. This increase could potentially be due to (1) an increase in natural disasters, (2) an increase in population/development, or (3) changes in federal and FEMA policy, according to congressional research. With an increase in disaster declarations, FEMA has to make more difficult decisions regarding which disasters need the funding.

Regardless of the cause, at the moment FEMA has moved away from providing aid following civil unrest; the agency’s focus remains on natural disasters. Without more examples of funding or denials for similar events faced in Baltimore, a precedent isn’t yet set in stone.

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