Emergency! Declarations Help States Cope
By Daniel C. Vock, Staff Writer
If it seems as if the whole country is in a "state of emergency," that's because most of it is. And that's before Hurricane Rita makes landfall.
Fully 45 states, plus the District of Columbia, are now in a federally recognized state of emergency as they take in the Gulf Coast residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina. President Bush also declared four of those states, where Katrina came ashore, "disaster" areas.
By comparison, only Virginia and New York were declared federal disaster areas following the terrorist attacks in 2001.
This year, states are using various types of emergency and disaster declarations to deal with plenty of problems - from hurricanes to drought to rampant crime.
For example, the governors of New Mexico and Arizona issued state emergency declarations in August because of widespread crime, damaged livestock and other problems in border communities beset with illegal immigrants and drug traffickers.
"The declaration … helps free up red tape; it makes money easier to use," said Peter Olson, a spokesman for the New Mexico Department of Public Safety.
Both state and federal governments can declare emergencies or disasters. Generally speaking, the declarations give governments - and their leaders - powers they would not normally have.
A gubernatorial order, for example, usually allows a governor to mobilize the National Guard, suspend state laws, spend state money and order an evacuation. It means the state can step in to use its resources when local governments are overwhelmed.
The governor's declaration is also the first step in a process that allows states to recoup costs from the federal government for post-disaster cleanups or short-term evacuee housing.
The federal government can step in only when states ask for help. If a state is overwhelmed, though, federal aid can prove extremely valuable. The U.S. government, for example, has declared it will cover 100 percent of the cost of housing evacuees from Hurricane Katrina in states not hit by the storm.
Even without federal involvement, state declarations can help. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) used a state declaration of emergency last month to send more police to his state's four border counties. He instructed state workers to build a fence to protect livestock near the town of Columbus.
The move immediately freed up state money in a special emergency fund that Richardson used to staff a new field office of the New Mexico Department of Homeland Security.
But neither Richardson nor Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (D) have received federal assistance for the emergency. Richardson didn't ask for it. Napolitano recently asked the feds for more time to apply, because, she explained, Arizona's emergency management services have been focused on the Katrina refugees.
In any event, the declarations proved to be an effective political tool.
Bush pledged to beef up border security in response to the concerns of the two governors. The U.S. Border Patrol assigned 86 more agents to its Deming Station, the office that monitors New Mexico's international border. The Mexican state of Chihuahua also razed abandoned buildings in a border town that Richardson said were used as a staging ground for drug- and people-smuggling operations.
Without a request from a governor, the federal government cannot send disaster or emergency relief. The federal Stafford Act requires that states activate their emergency response plan before asking the president for federal assistance.
The Stafford Act, first enacted in 1988, spells out the differences between a federal emergency and a federal disaster.
Disasters declarations are for catastrophic situations and, therefore, allow for greater federal help. They're used in situations such as tornadoes, landslides, floods and terrorist attacks. Before hurricane season, all of the federal states of emergency this year dealt with record or near-record snowfalls.
In both cases, the U.S. government picks up at least 75 percent of the cleanup costs.
The federal disaster declaration after Katrina for Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi paves the way for long-term rebuilding efforts.
Federal emergencies, by contrast, are designed to address shorter-term problems.
For example, Gov. Mike Easley (D) of North Carolina, declared a state emergency on Sept. 10, a day before Hurricane Ophelia poured 12-15 inches of rain on the coastal areas. The declaration allowed National Guard troops to mobilize rescue teams, transportation workers to clear sand off roads and state troopers to provide additional security.
Later that week, Bush also declared a federal state of emergency in North Carolina, allowing federal resources to be used in the cleanup effort.
Shortly after the storm, federal and state emergency officials conducted a survey of the damage inflicted on North Carolina.
If the damage exceeds $9.2 million, the state would qualify for financial aid from the feds, too, said Patty McQuillan, a spokeswoman for the North Carolina Department of Crime Control and Public Safety. State officials pegged the amount of damage at nearly $34 million, according to The Associated Press.
Agricultural disasters are handled differently. A governor triggers the relief for counties in his state, but the federal government provides the relief directly to the affected farmers.
This year, Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich began the process that allowed farmers in 101 of the state's 102 counties to seek low-interest loans from the federal government because of drought conditions.
Following federal law, he asked county offices of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Service Agency to conduct damage assessment surveys of their areas. The report found that 93 counties qualified for the agriculture disaster designation; the remaining eight bordered counties that were primarily affected.
Blagojevich asked U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns to declare an emergency in those 101 counties, which Johanns did.
To qualify for federal help, a farmer in one of the affected counties must lose at least 30 percent of his crop because of the disaster.
The "secretarial declaration" does not offer relief for state or local governments.