On Friday, US President Donald Trump declared a national emergency amid the coronavirus outbreak invoking the Stafford Act, freeing up over $50 billion in federal aid. Trump also said that he was likely to get tested for the virus as well soon after facing possible exposure.
In the US, federal assistance for disasters and emergencies is governed by the Stafford Act.
Essentially, the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act authorises the President to issue declarations that provide a range of federal assistance to states and localities, according to the Congressional Research Service (CRS). A declaration is defined as the President’s decision to provide federal aid for an incident. Three types of declarations can be made under the Stafford Act: fire management assistance grants, emergencies and major disasters. Under this Act, the primary federal agency responsible for coordinating federal responses is the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which is located within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
When the President declares an emergency, it authorises those activities that help states and communities to carry out essential services and activities “that might reduce the threat of future damage”. Further, an emergency also implies that over 75 per cent of the cost of relief is shifted from the state to the federal government.
Such declarations may also be issued before an incident occurs to save lives and prevent loss. For instance, an emergency may be declared before a hurricane has made landfall.
According to the Stafford Act, an emergency is defined as, “any occasion or instance for which, in the determination of the President, federal assistance is needed to supplement State and local efforts and capabilities to save lives and to protect property and public health and safety, or to lessen or avert the threat of a catastrophe in any part of the United States.”
Emergency declarations in the past
According to CSR, the number of declarations issued each year have steadily increased since 1953. Between 1974-2014, there were nine declarations of emergency issued each year. Most of these declarations have been for hurricanes, followed by snow-related events, droughts and severe storms.
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Therefore, only a few emergency declarations have been made for public health emergencies. In 2009, a national emergency was declared by then president Barack Obama in view of the H1N1 influenza pandemic. Before this, in 2000, Bill Clinton declared emergencies in New York and New Jersey in response to the West Nile virus.
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