What Happens When a Disaster Is Declared?

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Disaster management is something officials must plan for long before an emergency occurs.


The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies defines a disaster as “a sudden, calamitous event that seriously disrupts the functioning of a community or society and causes human, material, and economic or environmental losses that exceed the community’s or society’s ability to cope using its own resources.”

Most disasters are natural events, such as hurricanes, tornadoes, flooding, earthquakes, wildfires, and the like. Some, such as the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, are human in origin. Others are public health crises, like the current COVID-19 pandemic. Regardless of their cause, disasters arrive with little or no warning and can cause staggering devastation.

Government plays the primary role in managing disasters. The response starts at the lowest levels of government and may go all the way to the federal level, depending on the severity of the disaster. Public servants at all levels must understand their personal duties in a disaster, and they must also know the process for calling in help when the situation warrants it.

Disaster management is an eventuality that officials must plan for long before an actual disaster strikes. To create and execute a disaster plan, public servants need a thorough knowledge of what happens when a disaster is declared, including the applicable laws and available resources.

Ohio University’s online Master of Public Administration, which offers a concentration in crisis and emergency management that combines academic knowledge with practical skills and strategies, can provide the foundation needed for this task along with a general overview of the scope of public administration. The program prepares graduates for disaster response careers with federal, state or local governments or community organizations.

At the Local Level

Disaster response begins at the local level. Public servants such as mayors, city council members and board of commission members evaluate disasters that affect their jurisdiction. They have the power to take immediate actions such as:

  • Alerting and updating citizens by whatever means available, such as radio, television, social media and newspapers
  • Fully mobilizing public agencies such as the police force, emergency medical workers, and fire departments to help people in distress and also to ensure order and security
  • Ordering and coordinating evacuation efforts, if necessary
  • Taking actions to minimize damage and protect property and life, such as filling and passing out sandbags or providing other essential supplies
  • Coordinating with any voluntary agencies, such as church and community groups, that may offer to help
  • Ensuring that vital services such as power, water, communications, transportation, shelter, and medical care remain available, if possible
  • Coordinating debris removal, if necessary

During a disaster response, many normal government functions will take a back seat to emergency activities. Workers at all levels must be prepared to suspend their usual duties and cooperate fully with whatever they are asked to do.

At the State Level

If a disaster is too big for local government to handle alone, officials may opt to seek help from the state. To put these wheels into motion, a written request is submitted to the state’s governor. The request provides information about the disaster, lays out the steps already taken by local government, and explains the specific types of assistance needed. The state emergency management office reviews the request and advises the governor on how to respond.

If the request is approved — which it usually is — state government has many ways to help. The governor has the authority to:

  • Mobilize and instruct the National Guard in relief efforts
  • Send inspectors to the disaster area to make their own assessments and reports
  • Help coordinate and manage evacuation efforts
  • Temporarily suspend state laws and local ordinances that may hinder disaster efforts
  • Request specific aid from other states, such as additional personnel, equipment or supplies
  • Commandeer private property necessary for disaster response
  • Release emergency funds that have been set aside specifically for disaster relief
  • Inspect and repair structures such as bridges and roads that are important to public safety
  • Monitor supplies of food, water and other public necessities

At the Federal Level

Sometimes a disaster cannot be managed even at the state level. In this case, the state’s governor may appeal to the federal government for help. As with requests from the local to the state level, this appeal must be written and must lay out the scope of the disaster and explain the requested aid. The request must be approved by the president of the United States.

The whole process is governed by the Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act of 1988, informally called the Stafford Act. This legislation lays out the government’s responsibilities in disaster mitigation, all of which begin with mobilization of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). FEMA coordinates disaster assistance efforts that fall into three general categories:


  • Individual assistance, which is aid to individuals and households affected by the disaster
  • Public assistance, which is aid that supports certain emergency services and the repair/replacement of public facilities
  • Hazard mitigation assistance, which funds efforts to reduce future losses to both public and private property

Recovery Efforts

Disaster response does not end when the immediate crisis has passed. Disasters leave problems behind, such as property damage, loss of life, damaged or missing resources, broken utilities and much more. Local, state and federal governments, along with voluntary agencies such as the Red Cross, must work together to solve these problems and return the affected community to full function. Public servants at all levels will participate in this process as needed. The task is difficult but ultimately rewarding and makes a huge difference in the lives of the people affected.

About Ohio University’s Online Master of Public Administration (MPA) Program

Ohio University’s online MPA program is dedicated to preparing professionals for a career in public administration. Through the university’s prestigious Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs, students gain an overview of the scope of public administration and service while building skills in policy, finance, leadership, business, management and communications. The school occupies the No. 18 spot in the SR Education Group’s 2020 Best Online Colleges Offering MPA Programs ranking.

The program, which is 100% online, offers four concentrations: Public Leadership and Management, Non-Profit Management, State and Local Government, and Crisis and Emergency Management. Students can finish their degree programs in as few as two years. For more information, contact Ohio University now.


Recommended Reading:

Career Spotlight: Emergency Management Director

Policy Analysis in Public Administration

Working in Public Administration



Disaster definition – International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies

Response at the local level – Federal Emergency Management Agency

Response at the state level – Federal Emergency Management Agency

Response at the federal level – Federal Emergency Management Agency

Recovery efforts – Federal Emergency Management Agency