It’s difficult to put the aftermath of a natural disaster into perspective if you haven’t seen it for yourself. Widespread destruction of infrastructure and property, shut down of critical community and municipal services, and displacement of families can compound to create a situation unlike any other.

Facing these circumstances is difficult — picking up the pieces and moving forward toward normalcy can seem like a herculean task. It’s safe to assume that most municipalities will have a general, natural disaster and/or environmental emergency response plan in place, and many should consider adding a restoration plan devoted to guiding efforts in the restoration of power, water and other governmental responsibilities.

But simply having these plans doesn’t mean there is enough money saved for the extensive rebuilding required in the aftermath of a disaster.

When it comes to funding, the dollars can be few and far between — it’s uncommon for a community to build a rainy day fund to finance disaster relief. In certain scenarios, relief funding can come from many different places, including federal- or state-backed programs.

However, when the damage is deemed extensive enough to warrant federal assistance, the president of the United States, under authority granted by the Stafford Act, can call the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) into action. Understanding how FEMA works and what its funding can do will help municipalities better prepare for gaining grants when a disaster strikes.

How It Works

The Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (or Stafford Act for short) lays out the authority for federal disaster relief activities, including FEMA and its programs. For the act to go into effect in any given region or city, the president must determine that a disaster’s impact is such that state and local efforts require federal assistance to “save lives, prevent human suffering, or mitigate severe damage” (Robert T. Stafford Act). In doing so, a state of emergency is declared, allowing FEMA to enter an area and begin accepting applications for funding.

FEMA offers three programs for funding the restoration and repair of eligible facilities and infrastructure after a natural disaster:

  • Public assistance: This program is designed to assist public entities, such as schools, municipalities, and private, nonprofit agencies, etc. The public assistance program offers grant assistance for debris removal, emergency protective measures (such as assistance in an evacuation) and the restoration of publicly owned facilities.
  • Individual assistance: This program is designed to assist individuals who have been adversely affected by a natural disaster. Funding is available for housing assistance and some other expenses.
  • Hazard mitigation: This program is designed to assist in actions needed to reduce or eliminate long-term risk to populations and property from the results of a natural disaster. Currently, three FEMA programs address mitigation planning: the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP) for long-term mitigation; the Pre-Disaster Mitigation (PDM) Grant Program for annual projects; and the Flood Mitigation Assistance (FMA) Grant Program for reducing the risk of flood damage.

Submitting Applications

Once a disaster has been declared and the Stafford Act enacted, FEMA will open up the grant application for these three areas of assistance, but eligibility is key. By considering the eligibility of an applicant, the property in question, the location of that property, the type of work to be performed and the cost of that work, FEMA determines whether an applicant can be granted funding.

Eligible work is divided into two broad categories:

  • Emergency work includes debris removal and any preventative work needed to secure a property and mitigate the risks of further damage to the property or the public.
  • Permanent work is any work needed to restore or fully replace the facility or infrastructure.

It’s important to understand that any funding provided for a project that meets these criteria is designated for the restoration of a property to its original design, function and capacity. This can create some funding complexities, as a school building that was designed and built in 1920 will not meet the standards of today’s educational programs.

Another thing to keep in mind before applying: FEMA grants provide funding, and funding only. A community is still responsible for building out the planning and contracting for the projects necessary to restore its damaged property — FEMA only provides the money.

Planning for Funding

It’s nearly impossible to plan for every possible disaster; however, steps can be taken to better position a municipality’s response and operations if funding is ever needed. If a community is in a disaster-prone area, one way to smooth the funding application process is to have someone on staff who is trained and familiar with public assistance programs. Municipalities that have this knowledge and person in place usually have an easier time getting needed funding because they have an understanding of the grant process.

Furthermore, record keeping for these communities is extremely important. Documentation of infrastructure before damage occurs will help determine the extent of the damage and the necessary repairs to return it to working order. Maintaining accurate records is critical.

Finally, a municipality should have in its resource network established relationships with engineering firms that can provide professional advice during the damage assessment phase and also to develop plans and specifications for repair and restoration work. This preparation will facilitate the grant and recovery process.


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Don Schriber is a business development manager at Burns & McDonnell. During his more than 25 years of experience in the AE industry he has managed regional operations and lead project teams for varied environmental projects across industries. While under contract to FEMA, he worked closely with municipal leaders in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita to implement program funding throughout Louisiana.